A breeze lifted the shade on Martin’s bedroom window, and wan, gray light crept underneath. A blue jay called. The old man opened his eyes, blinked several times, then sat up in his pajamas on the edge of the bed and slid his feet into slippers. He took his spectacles from the night stand, stretched them over his ears, and used his cane to shuffle into the bathroom. Martin relieved himself, brushed his teeth, shaved, and regarded his image in the mirror. His eyes looked back at him sadly, moist at the edges. He smoothed the strands of hair on the sides of his head and tried to coax his lips into a smile. The stroke had taken place five years earlier, and still his lips wouldn’t cooperate; the best he could manage was the same grim smudge of mouth with the tiny curl turning up on the good side.
It took Martin a long time to change into his clothes, tie his shoes, pull on his jacket, and make his way out to the garage. He’d already packed the bed of his pick-up truck with the needed items. It had taken him more than an hour the night before. He backed the truck into the street and drove slowly on patched blacktop through the silent town. A few house windows were lit, but most were not. The gray had begun to lighten towards fuller dawn.
When he got to the diner and pushed open its door, little bells on top jingled. Denise looked up from behind the counter, shifted her girth, and smiled at him. She had his coffee poured and his place set in front of him before he managed to lower himself onto the stool.
“Good morning, Martin.”
The old man nodded. He turned his head to look around the empty diner, then stirred his coffee, putting nothing into it.
Denise scribbled something onto a pad, tore off the page, and put it on the ledge of the little window in the wall behind her that opened into the kitchen. The older of her two nephews there, Dale, took it and stuffed it in his pocket. Glen, the younger one, rubbed his dark shock of hair and said quietly, “Why does she bother to write that up? He gets the same damn thing every morning.”
Dale shrugged. He muttered, “Mr. Personality, you mean?”
“In the flesh.”
“I want you to promise me something. Will you do that?”
“I don’t know. Depends.”
Dale cracked an egg onto the hot, greased skillet in front of him and broke the yolk with a spatula. He said, “If I ever get that old, take me out back and shoot me.”
His younger brother snorted a laugh. “You bet,” he said. “I won’t have to be asked.”
Glen returned to filling salt shakers next to his brother. Dale put two pieces of bacon on the grill. He flipped the egg and did the same with the bacon when it began to spit. He sliced a hard roll in half, placed the sections face down on the edge of the grill, and pressed the tops of them with the spatula. Every now and then, each of the boys looked through the window at Martin who sat hunched over at the counter stirring his coffee. It was close and warm in the kitchen.
Denise went around the counter and pulled up the blinds at each of the five booths. Long rectangles of mottled light followed her inside as she did. When she came to the last window, she looked out at Martin’s truck in the parking lot. The big woman strained onto her tip-toes to see what was in the bed, then shook her head very slowly.
Dale assembled the sandwich, placed it in on a plate, and put it on the window’s ledge. He called, “Order!”
“Why do you even say that?” his brother whispered.
“She told me to.”
“There’s no one else in this God-forsaken place. She could hear you bang that plate on the shelf.”
Dale cuffed him on the shoulder. They both watched Denise come around the counter, take the plate, and slide it in front of Martin. She refilled his coffee cup, although he’d only taken a sip. She smiled again at the old man, but he didn’t notice. His hands trembled as he lifted the sandwich and took a small bite. They all watched him nod.
“Suppose it’s got to brighten up here soon,” Denise said. “Not much of a spring so far.”
Martin nodded again, studied the sandwich, and took another bite. He left a crumb on his cheek. Denise resisted an urge to wipe it off for him. He’d worked with her father at the fertilizer plant for nearly forty years until her father died. Martin continued to work there well past retirement age up to the day it closed a decade ago.
She turned and looked at her two nephews through the window. One had graduated high school the year before, and the other was a junior. She didn’t usually bring them both in on a Monday, but had that morning because she thought it might be a little busier with the holiday. She couldn’t really afford to pay the two of them, and most people in town no longer had the means to eat out much.
“Those condiment trays ready yet?” she asked them.
Glen said, “Just about.”
He finished the last salt shaker, then handed the small trays up to her in pairs through the window. She set a tray against the window of each booth and put a few along the inside edge of the counter. She didn’t put one near Martin because she knew he never used it.
A train went by out near the grain elevator heading north towards Duluth. It had discontinued its stop in town when the plant closed. Denise looked outside after the sound of it had died away; a cream-colored streak had emerged low in the early morning sky. She could now see a few flags that had been hung from porches along the residential streets across from the diner. Martin coughed. A fly buzzed towards the ceiling and then was silent.
Denise watched the old man finish his sandwich deliberately and push his plate away. She took it from him and brought it over to the pie display case by the cash register. She opened the case, turned the racks, and finally chose a slice of pecan pie to put on it. Denise set the plate back in front of Martin. She saw her nephews watching her through the window.
“Happy Memorial Day,” she said. “On the house.”
Martin looked up at her and said, “Thanks.
Denise refilled his coffee cup, then walked back into the kitchen. She went over to the rear refrigerator, opened it, and began counting the ingredients inside. When she shut the door, both of her nephews were standing in front of her in their aprons.
“Why did you do that?” Glen asked. “He never leaves more than a quarter for a tip. He barely acknowledges any of us.”
Denise looked back and forth between them and said, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I agree with him,” Dale said. “The guy’s a complete grump.”
“You don’t know,” she repeated and went into the pantry to count supplies there.
When she returned to the front of the diner, Martin had finished eating and was almost to the front door. She held it open for him, jingling the bells. “Have a good day,” she told him. He didn’t answer, but she looked after him until he’d shuffled to the truck, climbed into it, and started it.
Denise went back behind the counter, collected the money he’d left, put it in the cash register, and placed his dishes on the window ledge. Both of her nephews stood staring at her.
“Get back to work,” she told them. Glen grunted and took Martin’s dishes over to the sink. Dale put a hand on his hip and stirred a pile of fried potatoes he had going at the back of the grill.
The doors jingled again and two policemen came in. They took off their hats and put them on the table at the middle booth where they sat across from one another. Denise carried menus around to them, and said, “Morning, fellas. Coffee?”
After the policemen had finished eating and left, Denise carried their things over to the window ledge and told her nephews, “I’m going upstairs for something. I’ll be back in a bit.”
They watched her take off her apron, lay it next to the cash register, and leave through the jingling front door.
“Bon voyage,” Glen said.
Dale mumbled, “Take your time.”
Denise walked around to the side of the diner and up the outside stairway to the apartment where she lived alone; the steps groaned under her. She let herself in and went through her bedroom to the back window. She looked out of it and down into the small cemetery where her alley met the county road thirty or so yards away. The cemetery had reached its capacity some time ago; no one had been buried there for a number of years.
Martin’s truck was parked near the center of it along one of the gravel lanes. The tailgate was open, and he already had placed most of his coffee cans in front of the veterans’ gravestones. Each can was filled with sand and held a tall, single silk flower in the middle. The flowers were of different colors. She didn’t know where he’d gotten them over the years; maybe he ordered from a catalogue, or perhaps he drove into Minneapolis or St. Cloud to purchase them.
The sky was still hung with low clouds, and the cool breeze moved some of the leaves on the scattering of trees in the cemetery. Denise watched it ruffle the collar of Martin’s jacket and the hair above his ears. She watched him take one can at a time out of the back of his truck, use his cane to steady himself walking, and place them among the gravestones. He paused at each before setting the can down. He may have been saying a prayer, she didn’t know. Denise searched for her father’s gravestone back by the poplar tree, and saw a can with a purple silk flower in front of it. Her mother’s grave was next to his. She leaned against the window sill and put her hand over her mouth. A dog barked nearby, and another answered.
Denise watched Martin until he’d placed his last can, closed the tailgate of the truck, and sat down on a bench. He gazed out over the cemetery. He sat very still with his cane between his legs. Before she went back downstairs to the diner, Denise kissed her fingertips and extended them towards him, but he didn’t look in her direction.
Several people were seated at the counter when she returned, and another middle-aged couple was examining menus at a booth. Glen was filling water glasses and coffee cups. He looked at her and said, “Welcome back.”
His brother’s voice said loudly, “Order! Order up.”
Glen handed her the decanter of coffee he was holding and went to retrieve the meal. He put it down in front of one of the customers at the counter and returned to the kitchen.
Denise was standing just inside the door near the cash register. She didn’t know how long the cans were left in front of the gravestones. She almost never saw anyone visiting the cemetery; very few people near Martin’s age were left in town, and many who were younger had moved away when the plant closed. She just knew that the cans were removed sometime in the fall, when workers came in for maintenance and to rake the leaves, she guessed. Over the summer months, she often looked out her bedroom window at them, and she sometimes went over to visit her parents’ graves, as well. The cans always rusted over time, and many of the silk flowers drooped or bent. She straightened the ones she could.
Denise put her apron back on. The good smells of breakfast being cooked came from the kitchen. A little condensation had formed at the top edges of the windows. She heard one of her nephews swear in the kitchen, and the other laughed loudly. Then a radio was turned on in there, and she could hear music from it. Denise knew she should go back and correct them, but she stood where she was, looking over the diner, and out of it, towards the cemetery where Martin sat on his bench.
The lunch crowd that day was light, so Denise let Glen leave a little after one. His brother, a head taller and broad-chested, threw a rag at him as he left through the back screen door; Glen left it where it fell on the linoleum.
He walked down the alley, past the cemetery, and along the county road that bordered the river. The brown water moved fast and high with the spring melt not long passed. He glanced at spots along the bank where he and his brother had fished with their father years ago before he died. He went by several empty houses with plywood where windows had once been, and then crossed the road and turned up the gravel drive to their doublewide trailer that sat at the back of a small patch of scraggly grass.
He went inside and found his mother where she’d been when they left that morning, sleeping in her recliner in the front room with the television on but muted. Her cigarettes, lighter, and ash tray full of butts sat on the small table next to her along with several beer cans. She held the remote in her lap; her head was tilted back and her mouth open as she snored quietly.
Glen walked past her and down the hall to his room. He sat down at his desk and opened the book about chess that he’d been reading. For the next hour, he studied the book and slowly moved the plastic pieces on the board in front of him. Afterwards, he took the new yearbook that had just been distributed from beneath his pile of school texts and flipped slowly through the pages again. Tina’s class photo was on the same page as his; in it she was smiling close-mouthed, but the doe-eyes that made his heart stir were there. He skipped quickly through the pages at the center about voting awards that included a photo of him as the shyest boy in the school. He found Tina in the group photos towards the back for 4-H and the chess club, as well as in a random concluding shot eating lunch in the cafeteria with some other girls.
Glen took a pencil and wrote beneath that last photo: “Glen, I’m glad you finally told me how you felt. I’m so happy we’re together. XO, Tina”. He ran his finger over the photo, then scribbled hard over the inscription and erased it until it was completely gone. He closed the yearbook and sat still. In the quiet, he could just make out the sound of the river across the road. He heard a ten-wheeler rumble across the suspension bridge up the road. He opened his palms on the desktop and studied them: small hands on a slight boy. Then he left the house quickly, got on his bike, and rode hard until he reached the part of town where farms began.
Glen pedaled on a path through a swath of woods and stopped his bike behind a stand of cottonwood trees. Through the leaves and across a backyard in front of him, he could see Tina in the little corral behind her house. She was walking a horse slowly around the perimeter of the corral, and as she looked up at the horse, he could see the concentration on her face. Glen watched her pause and push a loose strand of hair behind an ear.
He whispered, “Hello. Hello there, you.”
When Martin got home from the cemetery, he poured himself a glass of water and sat down at the kitchen table. He looked outside the window and regarded the mound of dirt that had been his vegetable garden for decades, but was now covered with weeds. The little scarecrow he’d built years ago with his daughter, Ruth, had tipped at an angle at the top of the mound, nodding in the small breeze. He thought about going out and straightening it, but took a handkerchief out of his pocket instead and blew his nose. He looked outside again: the back fence needed painting and a stand of lilac there had overgrown the barren bird bath. The sky was still gray over the rooftops.
Martin lifted a box of stationery and a pen off the chair next to him. He took a sheet out of the box and started another letter to his daughter. He began by asking how she was and said he hoped she was doing well. He asked how the fundraising effort was going for the school where she taught and if she’d received the check he’d sent; he worried about it getting to her in Africa because of the distance involved and the remoteness of where she lived. He told her about the weather, about the days getting longer, about a pair of trousers he’d ordered from a catalogue, about his health, about visiting the cemetery that morning. He described the new produce that had begun trickling in at the grocery store and the way a neighbor’s cat now sometimes spent time sleeping on one of the folding chairs in the backyard. He paused and looked out at the chair, which was empty at that moment, as was the rope swing he’d hung for her when she was young from a branch of the crab apple tree. He wrote that he missed her, that he loved her, and that he was very proud of her.
Martin folded the letter into one of the envelopes at the bottom of the box, then addressed and stamped it. He licked the envelope flap, sealed it, set it on the table in front of him, and rubbed the corner of it lightly. He thought of the night he’d picked Ruth up from a birthday party when she was seven and brought her home where his wife was waiting to tell her that she was leaving. It had been late May, around that same time of year, and Ruth was telling him about her favors from the party as they climbed the front steps together and entered the front room where his wife sat on one side of the couch. She smiled at Ruth and patted the spot next to her.
“Come,” she said. “Sit.”
He remembered that he could hardly feel his own feet moving as he came over and sat on the other side of Ruth. He’d felt like he was in a nightmare since that morning when his wife had told him that she was unhappy and needed time alone. He had no idea that there was anything wrong. When he asked if there was someone else, she said that was only part of it.
His wife held her smile and talked in simple terms to Ruth. Her explanation was brief and didn’t include any mention of another man. When she’d finished, Ruth was silent, looking up at her until she asked, “Then we won’t have Christmas together?”
His wife shook her head. “Probably not.”
Ruth began to cry silently. She reached up and touched her mother’s cheek with a fingertip. Her mother closed her hand around it, lowered it, and held it in her lap. They sat there like that in silence for perhaps five minutes until her mother kissed Ruth on the forehead, stood up, and walked into the kitchen. They heard the back door open and close behind her and her car start in the driveway. They heard it back out and the sound of her tires on the blacktop die away.
Except for Sundays, Denise kept the diner open for breakfast and lunch. On Sunday mornings, she only served breakfast, so once that was winding down, she got on the road for her bi-weekly visit to Carl. The prison was a five-hour drive south through Minnesota and northern Iowa, then east into Illinois. She’d met Carl through letters eleven years earlier when she’d started writing him via a volunteer program she’d read about in a magazine. At first, the letters were friendly and impersonal, mostly pep talks on her part to keep up his spirits. But, then they’d both gradually begun to reveal more about themselves, dreams lost and still hidden, and she began to develop feelings for him, feelings he shared. He was in the early stages of a twenty-five-year sentence for vehicular homicide involving an incident where two people had been killed while he was driving drunk. Of course, he hadn’t touched a drop of alcohol since his arrest; his remorse was profound. And, she discovered, he’d endured abuse as a child that had affected and harmed him deeply. At the prison, he’d joined a Bible study group and a painting class; he also volunteered in the library there and was studying for his GED.
She’d visited him the first time on a bitterly cold afternoon in January about three years after they’d started their correspondence. A guard had led him into a brightly lit room where she waited among tables where other inmates in their orange jumpsuits sat across from friends and loved ones. They had exchanged photographs, but as Carl lowered himself down on the other side of the table, his eyes were even gentler and more pained than in his pictures; his manner and voice, too, were quieter and humbler than the words he scratched in blue ink on the lined paper she’d received weekly for so long. At first, they simply looked at each other until he began to weep. Denise took his hand, and he put his other on top of hers. They sat that way until a guard brought a box of tissues over.
She’d visited every other Sunday since. He sent his letter each week on Wednesday, and she responded the following day so he’d have her reply before she next came. Not long after that initial visit, Denise was the first to add the word, “love”, to her closing, but he followed in the same manner in his next letter, and that exchange had continued since. They were not allowed to do more than hug briefly and hold hands.
She drove through the long, familiar expanses of cornfields, with their new shoots ankle-high. She crossed over the Mississippi River on the bridge that separated St. Paul and Minneapolis, and several hours later turned east just north of Cedar Rapids. She drove through livestock pastures for the next seventy miles until she passed into Carroll County and finally arrived at Thomson Correctional Center. Before going in, she used the rearview mirror to apply lipstick and arrange her face; there were wisps of gray in her short, dirty-blonde hair.
The same guard as usual greeted her warmly, conducted the customary inspection procedures, and she was led to the visitors’ room. Carl was brought in a few minutes later. They embraced and then he sat across the table from her and took her hand. His face looked worn, ashen; he stared at the table.
“What’s wrong?” she asked softly.
“Nothing.” He shook his head, but kept his eyes turned down.
“What is it?” She shifted her weight.
He shrugged. “Nothing. Nothing has changed. I’d hoped it would, but it hasn’t.”
“What do you mean?”
He looked up at her with weary eyes. “I’d hoped I’d be able to tell you today that I had a probation hearing coming up, but that request was denied on Friday.”
“Oh,” she said. “My. I’m sorry.”
She rubbed his hand. He looked out the window at the empty courtyard with its tall fences topped with coiled barbed wire. She kept her gaze on him. Behind him, someone at a table chuckled, and another voice rose in animation.
“Do you need anything?” she asked.
His eyes stayed on the window. He said, “Socks.”
“Okay,” she nodded. “Socks. I’ll bring you some nice socks.”
That night, Dale got together with some friends and drove to a camping spot off the county road next to the river where they drank beer and threw rocks in the water. They were all friends from high school, and he’d played football with most of the guys. A few were couples who leaned against tailgates with their arms around each other. Like him, most of them took classes at the local community college in the next larger town, but less than half had been able to find jobs. There was a lot of jostling, jokes, and loud laughter.
Dale got back to the trailer a little after midnight. His mother was asleep in her recliner; he put out a cigarette that was smoldering in the ash tray, clicked off the remote, and replaced it in her lap. He turned off the lamp next to her and went down the hallway. He waited until he heard his brother’s deep, even breathing, then went in his own bedroom and locked the door.
Dale pulled the curtain closed and brought his laptop over to the bed. He turned it on, stretched out with it in the dark leaning against the headrest, and visited several sites with images of naked men. Afterwards, he searched for “gay neighborhoods in Minneapolis”. He found several that were referenced. He turned off the computer and set it on the bed next to him. He lay thinking for a long time in the darkness and was aware of the river in the background.
The town held its annual “founding festival” the following weekend at the regional park along the river, which was basically a microcosm of a county fair. A traveling carnival set up some rides and booths, there was a small rodeo each evening, and a big tent housed 4-H and other exhibits. Martin drove over late on Saturday afternoon to watch some of the rodeo and have a hot dog. Denise had entries in both the pie and jam contests that had judging that same evening. Glen came then, too, because he was hoping that Tina would be involved with the scheduled showings for 4-H, and Dale went with friends for the carnival.
Before he’d left home, Glen had re-written a note to Tina several times and had it folded it into small squares in one of his sweatshirt’s pockets. When he arrived, he walked slowly through the carnival and then stopped for a while at the rodeo to try to slow his hammering heart. Finally, he entered the big tent. He noticed his aunt at the far end where the culinary judging was going on, and then he saw Tina kneeling in a pen nearby brushing a sheep. She was wearing jeans, a plaid shirt, and had a red bandana tied around her neck. Her hair was pulled back in a ponytail the way he liked. Glen swallowed. No one else was in her pen. He blew out a breath, walked over to the pen next to hers, and pretended to study two pigs there that were eating out of a trough. When he glanced over, she had stopped brushing and was looking at him with a small smile.
She said, “Glen, right?”
“No,” he said. “I don’t.”
“Sure.” He nodded some more. “I do.”
“Want to pet my girl here before I take her out to show? Maybe you’ll bring us luck.”
He walked over, bent down, and ran his palm over the sheep’s back.
“She won’t bite,” Tina said. “She’s gentle.”
When she looked up at Glen, there were her doe-eyes.
“Well,” she said. “I guess it’s time.” She smiled at him once more, then hooked her finger under the sheep’s collar and moved towards the gate of the pen. As she did, Glen took the folded note out of his pocket and set it on the dirt where she’d been. She came around toward him and stopped when she was alongside. “Hey,” she said and gestured with her head. “I think you dropped something.”
Glen looked down at the folder paper on the dirt. “Oh,” he said. He reached in the pen and retrieved it. “Thanks.”
“Sure.” She smiled again with those eyes. “Wish us luck.”
He blurted, “I wish you every good fortune in life.”
She frowned and mumbled, “What?” Her eyes remained kind.
“So.” Glen rushed to get the words out. “I was thinking of joining the chess club.”
“That would be good,” she told him. “We meet on Tuesdays during lunch in the library. Come then.”
“Okay,” he said, and his heart slowed a bit. “I will.”
She smiled a last time and he watched her walk off with her sheep towards a large pen in the center of the tent where a crowd of people were gathered.
Martin watched the calf roping and a few of the bareback riders before he found a food stand and ordered his hot dog and a lemonade. He sat alone at picnic table and watched things as he ate. The smells of fried foods, livestock, and cotton candy wafted on the breeze, and he thought about Ruth. They had come to the festival every year together before she’d gone off to college. She’d liked the game booths best. He remembered winning her a stuffed turtle at one; the turtle still had its spot on the bureau in her bedroom.
Dale paused when he noticed Martin as he and his friends passed by. He thought about what his aunt had said in the diner a few mornings before. He’d heard some things about the friendship between his grandfather and Martin. Seeing the old man sitting alone in the gloaming, something clutched inside of him.
Denise earned a red ribbon for her pie and a yellow for her jam. She was pleased with both. After the judging, she wandered for a while among the other exhibits in the tent and then made her way outside. It was not quite full evening, the sky above the trees ink-washed. All around her, voices laughed or rose together merrily and excited shouts from the carnival rides and calls from the barkers at the booths rose above the din. She was reminded of coming to the festival as a child, of growing up in this town, her home. She was reminded of Carl, of how he’d never seen this place, of how it would be many years now, if ever, until he did. She thought of how different their paths had been and how they’d somehow come together, of how they would hold hands again while they talked quietly the following Sunday and then embrace until the guard told them it was time to go.
Denise paused on her way to the parking lot and leaned against some bales of hay to watch the last hues of day leave the sky.
Dale and his friends started at the carnival rides. When they were waiting in line for the Ferris wheel, he saw one of the barkers at a booth nearby looking at him. He held the young man’s gaze for a second and then looked away. The young man was tall and thin with an angular face and piercing eyes. When Dale glanced back, the young man was still staring at him and then smiled. Dale stood very still, blinking, and then felt his own lips forming a small smile, too.
An hour or so later, he and his friends stopped at a stand along the midway to order food and sprawl on the grass around the corner from it to eat. Dale was the last to be served. As he waited alone, he felt a shoulder touch his own, and turned to see the young barker next to him. He felt a flush rise up through his shoulders, along his neck and into his cheeks. They stood looking at each other until Dale finally said, “Am I in your way? Are you waiting to order?”
“You’re not in my way at all.” The young man’s voice was soft; there was stubble along his jaw line. His hair was coal black and the stubble was the same. Dale heard one of his friends around the corner say something loudly and the others laughed.
“Do you have a name?” the young man asked.
“I’m John. Do you live around here?”
Dale nodded and watched John caress the stubble on his chin with his fingertips. The vendor from the food stand said, “Here you go.” Dale turned and took a cotton candy from her.
“That looks good,” John said. “Sweet.”
Dale paused, then said, “Have some if you want.”
John leaned forward and pulled a long bite from the cotton candy. As he did, he kept his eyes on Dale’s. Dale watched him push the wisps into his mouth, lick his fingertips, lick his lips.
An extended shriek came from one of the clacking rides.
“So,” John said. “I close up my booth about ten. If you’re still around, or if you want to come back.”
Dale heard himself clear his throat. “Okay,” he said. “All right. I might.”
One of his friends called his name; Dale glanced in that direction and back at John, then went around the corner where they were sitting.
Denise watched Martin use his cane to shuffle across the parking lot towards his truck. She smiled watching him until he stumbled suddenly, dropped his cane, and fell against a parked car. Her eyebrows knit and she stood up. As Martin tried pushing himself up, his arm buckled and he fell to his knees. Denise put her hand to her mouth and ran to him.
“Martin, it’s me, Denise.” She clasped him under the arm nearest to her. “What happened? Are you all right?”
The old man looked up at her with wide eyes. “Fine,” he mumbled. The words dribbled out of the left side of his mouth, and the other side drooped lower than usual. His lips were trembling.
“Good Lord,” Denise gasped. She fished her cell phone out of her jacket pocket and called 911.
There was an ambulance on site for the festival, so Martin was in it and on his way to the hospital in the next town within minutes. Denise took his cane and followed the ambulance in her car.
She gave the cane to the emergency room receptionist and then was the only one in the waiting area. She sat on the edge of a stiff chair in the white neon light from for nearly two hours until a doctor came out, perched next to her, and confirmed that it had been another stroke. He told her that it didn’t seem severe and that getting the right medicine into Martin early had helped. But he was fairly certain that there was a blockage that would need to be cleared this time, that angioplasty would likely be involved. He told her that Martin was being admitted to a room upstairs in the med-surg wing.
“Can I see him before he’s moved?”
“He’s not very alert. He’s mostly been sleeping.”
The doctor nodded and led her through swinging doors and down a hallway to a curtained space where Martin lay in a gown on his back in a hospital bed. He lay perfectly straight, with his arms at his sides, sleeping, his mouth agape. A bag on a pole dripped into tubing that led to an IV in the old man’s wrist, and a monitor was attached to the pole that made a soft, regular beeping sound. The cannula prongs of an oxygen line were in his nostrils, then looped around his ears that led to a softly hissing canister on the wall.
“His oxygen levels are fine,” the doctor said. “We just have him hooked up for comfort.”
Denise took the hand without the IV and held it in her own. Suddenly, Martin opened his eyes, looked from the doctor to her, and mumbled, “Don’t tell Ruthie. I don’t want her bothered about me.”
“You’re not to worry about that,” Denise said. “Don’t worry about anything except getting better.”
Two orderlies in blue smocks came into the area. One of them said, “We’re ready to transport now.”
Denise squeezed the old man’s hand. She said, “You rest and do as you’re told, you hear? I’ll be back tomorrow.”
Later that night, it was after four when Dale returned to the trailer. His mother was asleep in her recliner, but the TV and lamp were off. Glen heard his brother come in, heard his bedroom door close quietly, but didn’t think more of it. His thoughts were on someone else.
Both brothers lay on their backs in bed with their hands clasped behind their heads. A plane flew by overhead, every now and then a vehicle would pass on the county road, and it wasn’t long until the soft titters of the first birds began. The boys were only separated by a thin wall and a few feet, but they were miles apart.
Denise drove over to the hospital the next afternoon after she closed the diner. Martin was in a room by himself on the second floor. He lay exactly as he’d been the night before, his mouth open, sleeping silently. He was still hooked up to the same equipment, but a bandage had been placed on his forehead where he’d scraped it against the parked car when he’d fallen. Denise reached down and refastened a corner of the bandage that had curled up.
A nurse came into the room, someone Denise recognized vaguely. She watched her take Martin’s vital signs while he slept.
Denise asked, “How’s he been?”
“Any word on next steps?”
“Doctor was by on rounds this morning. They did some tests. The surgery is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon at one.”
Denise nodded and watched the nurse leave. It was quiet. The room was small and spare, but very clean, and filtered light came through the open window. She studied Martin’s face as his chest slowly rose and fell. He and her father had bowled together on the same factory team for many years. They’d gone fishing together often. Martin had sat near the front of the church at her father’s funeral.
There was dried spittle at the corners of Martin’s mouth. Denise found a washcloth, dampened it at the sink, and wiped the spittle away. She dampened the washcloth again and cleaned the rest of his face, the hair above his ears, the top of his head, the back of his neck, his upper chest. He slept through it all.
She sat down on a chair next to the bed and stayed there, thinking, for more than an hour. At one point, she heard men talking in Spanish outside, and looked down through the window at two men smoking next to a delivery truck. A few minutes later, it was quiet again. The nurse didn’t come back in before Denise finally rose, gave Martin’s shoulder a squeeze, and left. He hadn’t awoken once while she was there.
When she got home, she went to her computer and did a search on American consulates in Africa. She wasn’t sure what country Ruth was in, so she sent emails to all the ones for whom she could find contact information. By the time she’d finished, it was dark. She fixed herself a can of soup, and ate from the pot when it had cooled. She stood at the kitchen counter looking out the window as she did. The streetlamps had come on throwing yellow globes of light on tree branches, on sidewalks, on cars parked under them.
Denise’s nephews alternated daily breakfast shifts at the diner, and then Dale could generally arrange his community college classes so he could return to cook for lunches. But on that particular Tuesday, Dale had a final exam and couldn’t work during lunch, so Denise had to ask Glen. She explained things to him that morning in the kitchen after he’d come in to cook breakfast.
When she finished, he said, “No. I have plans.”
“Well, then you need to un-do them. This is important. It’s an emergency.”
They stood staring at one another in the kitchen. He was holding a spatula; her arms were crossed.
“I’ll call the school and make arrangements,” she told him. “You’ll only be missing lunch, PE, and woodshop.”
“You don’t understand.”
“I understand this: that old man is alone and having surgery. I’m going to be there when he does, and you’re going to help me do that.”
She turned and walked back into the front of the diner. He stood shaking his head, but didn’t say anything more.
That morning at break, Glen saw Rita sitting on a low wall peering at a book. He took a deep breath, then went up to her and said, “Hey.”
She looked up at him. “Hi.”
“So, how’d your sheep do?”
“Okay. We didn’t place or anything. But, it was fun.”
Glen nodded, then said, “So, I can’t come to chess club today. I have to work for my aunt at her diner. An old guy is having surgery, and she wants to be there.”
“The man from the festival? The one that got taken away in the ambulance?”
Glen nodded again.
“He’s nice,” Rita said. “He helped my mom and me once when our car broke down on the side of the road.”
“Yes. He stopped and got it started again. It took a long time.”
The school bell rang. She smiled and said, “The club meets every week. You can come next Tuesday. I’d like that.”
Glen watched her close her book and walk away. If he’d felt happier, he couldn’t remember when.
After the surgery, the same doctor from the emergency room came out where Denise sat waiting. She stood up to meet him. He was still wearing scrubs.
“Well, everything went well,” he said. “Of course, we won’t know the long-term effects on his speech or memory or movement for some time, but he should recover fine. We’ll watch him for a couple of days and then he can go home. Does he have someone there to help care for him?”
Denise nodded and said, “Me.”
Dale had gone back to the festival when it was over that next afternoon as the carnival workers were packing their things away. He stood hidden under a tree and watched John working with two older men loading poles and equipment on a flatbed truck. Even from that distance, he could see part of the tattoo on the back of John’s neck and knew that the rest of it extended beneath his shirt across his shoulders. His heart ached.
A woman from the carnival brought a sack of trash over to a bin near where he was standing. After she’d placed it inside, he stepped out from beside the tree and asked her if she knew John.
“Of course,” she told him.
“Will you give him this?” He held out a small paper bag that was almost flat.
“Sure.” She took it from him and walked back towards the carnival site. Dale trotted over to his car and drove away before she got there. He didn’t look back.
During discharge late that Thursday afternoon, the doctor made it clear to Martin that he couldn’t be left alone for long and that there would be no driving at least until after a few check-ups. Denise told the doctor that she’d be spending nights with him and checking in on him several times a day. She’d be getting his meals, helping him with sponge baths, doing his laundry and cleaning. She’d bring him to his appointments. Martin didn’t object; he didn’t say anything, but just lay still in the hospital bed, swallowed, and made a tiny shrug.
He was silent, too, on the drive home. It was after six o’clock when they got to his place. The policeman she’d been in contact with had Martin’s truck already parked in the garage. She helped him out of the passenger seat in the driveway and kept her hand on his elbow as he used his cane to shuffle up the walk, through the back door, and into a chair at the kitchen table. The overhead light was on; she’d been there earlier in the afternoon to stock the refrigerator and make up the bed in Ruth’s old room for herself.
“How about some macaroni and cheese?” Ruth asked.
He looked at her for a long moment before nodding.
Ruth busied herself at the stove and Martin looked around the familiar room. A photograph that Ruth had sent him from Africa was framed on the wall above the table; in it, she was standing and grinning widely in front of the school where she taught surrounded by young students. The coffeemaker sat where it always had next to the sink, and the same coupons were stuck with their magnets to the refrigerator door. All of the newspapers that had accumulated while he was gone had been stacked neatly on the table next to him.
He watched Denise’s wide back while she prepared their meal and then said, “I want to thank you.”
She turned around. He was nodding, and his left hand trembled a bit. She said, “You’re welcome.”
In a little while, she brought their bowls over to the table, and then returned with cups of tea. She settled herself into the chair next to his and they ate in silence. As they did, Martin looked out the kitchen window where he could just make out the rope swing, the scarecrow, and the back fence in the dwindling light.
When he’d finished eating, he pushed away his bowl, looked at Denise and said, “I’d like to build you a birdhouse…if I’m still able.”
“That would nice.” She smiled. “That would be wonderful.”
Each morning, Denise made a pot of coffee and his egg and bacon sandwich before she went to the diner, and left the sandwich on a plate under a dishtowel on the table. She looked in on Martin before she left, and did the same several times each night. During the lull at the diner between breakfast and lunch, she left and drove over to check on him again and to bring him a mid-day meal. Then, once she’d closed the diner, she’d return to his place and spend the rest of the afternoon and night there.
On Sunday, however, she had to make her regular long drive to visit Carl. So, she told Glen and Dale that they needed to share duties with Martin once she left. One would go over for lunch and spend a couple of hours, and then other would do the same at dinnertime. Denise used the same direct manner with them as she had with Glen for the surgery; she just told them what was needed. She offered to pay them for their time, but in the end, they each waved her away.
Glen said, “She’s just like Dad used to be.”
“Exactly,” Dale nodded. “They even look the same.”
Around noon that Sunday, Dale stopped and bought hamburgers and shakes before heading to Martin’s. It was a warm day, so they ate out back on lawn chairs under the crab apple tree. Dale still felt lightheaded because the first of the self-addressed postcards had arrived the day before from John; they’d been in the bag he’d given to the women after the festival. John’s message only included a few words about the next town they’d set up the carnival in, but Dale read it over and over again and put it under his pillow. He smiled as he ate.
When they’d finished, Martin wiped his mouth with a napkin, and said, “You’re happy about something.”
Dale looked at the old man. “I guess. Yeah.”
“Oh, I don’t know. I suppose it’s a secret.” He watched Martin nod. “You’ve been around a long time. You must have secrets.”
“I do,” Martin said. “I do.”
“Why don’t you tell me one?”
“Well,” Martin said slowly. He took off his spectacles, studied them, and stretched them back over his ears. He looked at the young man directly. “My daughter is gay, Ruth. She’s the best person I’ve ever known.”
Dale sat blinking, the paper cup in his hand completely still. “Wow,” he finally said. “That’s something.”
“Yes.” Martin nodded some more. “I usually write her a letter each week. Overdue for that, and not sure I can manage it myself anymore. If I told you what to say, could you write it down for me?”
“Sure,” the young man said, “I can do that.”
“Stationery and pen on one of the kitchen chairs.”
Dale took away their trash and when he returned with the paper and pen, the old man’s eyes were closed. He thought Martin may have fallen asleep until he said, “Dear Ruth, hints of summer have finally arrived in these northern parts that you know so well. Buds are in full bloom on the crap apple tree, and the sweet smell of lilac is in the air…”
Glen came over a little before six. Martin was sitting at the kitchen table with a section of newspaper in front of him.
“Well, do you want to eat?” Glen asked him. “My aunt said she left lasagna to reheat and a salad in the refrigerator.”
Martin shook his head. “Not really hungry yet. Go ahead, if you want.”
“Me either.” Glen sat down across from him. He quickly surveyed the room and then began drumming his fingertips on the tabletop. “Well, do you want to do something? Watch TV, play a game?”
“All right. A game sounds nice.”
“What do you have to play?”
“Cards.” Martin frowned, trying to remember. “Chess, checkers.”
Glen’s eyes widened. “Chess?”
“Yes, there’s a board and pieces in the front closet.”
“Can you teach me to play? I know a little, but not much.”
“I’d be pleased.”
He watched the boy jump from his chair and disappear into the living room. The evening train going south made its way through the outskirts of town; it was a long train, longer than the one that headed north each morning.
As Denise headed back that evening on I-35 in Iowa towards Minnesota, she felt glad. Carl had been in a better frame of mind; he’d passed one of the sections of his GED exam earlier that week and he liked the socks she’d brought him. The guard had allowed them to linger longer than usual during their parting hug. And the evening before, she’d finally received an email from Ruth; it had taken many exchanges before she could finally be tracked down in Ghana at the school where she worked. Ruth was on her way home at that moment. Denise was going to pick her up at the airport in Minneapolis the following afternoon.
She felt glad about those things. She felt glad for her nephews, too, for their help and despite their flaws, for the boys they were. She felt glad for Carl. She looked out at the moon just above the horizon and the endless fields of corn spread out before her in the waning light; she felt glad for those things, as well, and for this long road she was on that was bringing her home.
William Cass has had over a hundred short stories appear in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, Conium Review, and an earlier issue of Sweet Tree Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.