Fiction by Doug Crandell
Our mother had been to Kokomo three times in one year.
She had ecstatic highs where once she sewed all three of us pantsuits of the same carmine velveteen with taupe piping, which when we wore them together, and stood next to each other, gave off the impression of a large Victorian pillow. It had been four months since she’d returned to us from the last time. She’d taken on mending clothes and catering events for a series of churches. She was working mostly for the Presbyterian in town. She’d make ten lasagnas for someone’s Bible class or a dozen casseroles full of green beans, ham, and mashed potatoes along with sixty yeast rolls.
Dad called it the blues, but it wasn’t just that. When all of us kids got worms, Reagan was president, and somehow dad believed our infestation was linked to Jimmy Carter being beaten the year before. In fact, our father also believed Reagan and his corporate goons were behind the Tylenol poisonings too. He wasn’t a conspiracy diehard, just a man that was losing trust in almost everything.
Dad sat down at the kitchen table, fresh out of the shower, red-faced and shaven. His knuckles were scraped and in various stages of scabbing. Mom put the worm pills before us as he smoked. He said to Todd and me, “I’m gonna switch ‘em up on you, okay?” We both nodded. Cara always finished her homework and never needed checking. She helped mom put saran wrap over bowls of spaghetti for the fridge, bundles of garlic bread sticks like stacked wood and wrapped in foil. Cara arranged them in a massive Tupperware box as big as an ice chest.
“Thunder,” said Dad. I knew it was Todd’s word, so I nibbled on a breadstick that hadn’t met mom’s quality standards. Todd spelled the word.
“Rock,” said Dad. I spelled it easily and felt proud. He gave us more words, breakfast, stone, fence, gentleman, purple, tough, and Todd’s last one, operation. It was getting late. Cara had finished helping mom and had gone for her shower. Dad told us to help close the windows, and we did as we were told, both of us working on the living room window with its swollen frame, pushing as hard as we could together until it gave, and we fell into each other. We walked back into the kitchen to say goodnight. Dad was talking lowly to mom, his hand at the center of her back. Her dark hair hung down around her face. She was shaking her head no. It sounded like he was trying to get mom to stop working. She was making more spaghetti sauce even though she’d already filled the fridge with a dozen containers. We walked further into the kitchen. Mom told him, “I’m just going to do a couple more batches and then I’ll come to bed.” Dad rubbed his chin and forced a smile. He turned to us and we did as he said, each of us hugging our mother and kissing her goodnight. I could feel the energy as I hugged her; she was sweaty and jittery, her hands on each side of my face trembling as she kissed my forehead.
Upstairs, in our twin beds, Todd whispered, “I think she’s getting close to Kokomo again.” I didn’t answer. I was angry with him for making me worry, even though I’d thought the same thing.
Two weeks earlier mom had given each of us a strip of Scotch tape. “Press it against your anus and then fold it over.” We stood in a line before her outside the bathroom door. “We’ll put all three of them in this envelope and take them to Dr. Stoops’ office.” Todd giggled, and it made mom smile, but then she got serious again. “It’s probably why your bottoms are itching. The nurses will look at them under a microscope for eggs stuck to the tape.”
“We shouldn’t say anything,” said Cara, more to Todd than mom or me.
“No way,” said Todd. We all three knew we didn’t want the Connors to know. We hated the Connors; there were three of them, and three of us, and we’d somehow come to the decision that we’d remain in a feud with them on and off the bus. Their folks had office jobs, while ours worked with their hands. Mom told Cara to go first with the tape, then Todd, then me. It was an odd feeling, but the last three days had been worse, itching and waking up all night. I’d started to think it was true what the Connors called us, white trash hillbillies without a pot to piss in. I also knew it wasn’t true, because while the house wasn’t ours it did have a bathroom, but also our grandparents had come from Kentucky and moved to Indiana, and I’d somehow assumed we had been hillbillies when they lived in Kentucky, but that Indiana had made us what? Just white trash? I hated the Connors for making me think about my family in this way.
Mom used tweezers to take the tape from us. She slowly inserted the folded over clear packets into the envelope. “Go wash your hands good,” she told us. Todd couldn’t resist a joke when he gave mom his tape. “I think I trapped a fart in mine,” he said, laughing, mom giggling, as she swatted at his butt. “Use the Goop,” she told us, “count to twenty and rinse your hands with the hottest water you can stand.” She was still smiling as she put the envelope into her big purse.
A few days later, Mom had found rusty mufflers at the landfill and had them hauled to the rental house. Dad wasn’t home yet. She was swinging toward the manic. She had Todd and me using wire brushes on the things. We worked hard at it on the front porch, the stray bristles and rough edges of the mufflers nicking our knuckles. I liked to watch the little beads of blood form, which made me feel manly like our dad. A pickup truck we didn’t recognize pulled into the driveway, the bed toppling with more rusty mufflers. Mom rushed off the porch and down the steps to direct the driver toward the other pile. She had him stack the mufflers like firewood. Cara whispered, “She’s getting hyper again.” Cara stood and watched our mother.
“He’s not going to like these mufflers here,” said Todd. “He’s got new ones at the shop.” We’d helped dad unbox the new mufflers, sniffing our fingers, the tips oiled from the shiny metal, the silver like the nickels we saved in mason chairs.
“She said she’s going to paint them,” said Cara, still watching mom, who now was paying the man whose sideburns nearly touched the corners of his mouth. Mom waggled a five-dollar bill in his face, hips switching playfully. There was some autumn sunlight dying behind the two of them, and I thought I might be prone to our mother’s state of mind, when I couldn’t shake how sad they looked in silhouette, as if mere plywood cutouts, like the ones our neighbors put in their yards to give the impression of real people.
“They’ll still be old,” said Todd, a long streak of blood along his wrist. Cara handed him a dishtowel and motioned with her head at his hand. He stopped and dabbed and handed the towel back to Cara.
“No, she’s not going to paint them for vehicles, not silver paint. She’s going to paint them as decoration. To spruce up dad’s shop. Plus, she’s going to paint some of them with farm scenes, like those saw blades in Ace’s.” Cara watched, as mom started back toward us. She faked a smile in mom’s direction. Cara whispered to us, “You know, paint them with cardinals, and barns.”
We used the wire brushes on several more mufflers until it grew dark. The muffler mom worked on fell apart under her forceful sanding. She stepped back as if there might be a snake or spider inside, then she bent to inspect it. We stopped working and watched as she pulled a piece of metal from the rusted hole. She smiled and held it up, so we could see. It was shaped like a three-pointed star, one of them longer than the other two. “That’s odd, isn’t it,” mom said, turning the thing over and inspecting the back, then over again. We’d collected old bolts, washers, weird nails we said were from Jerusalem, and short log chains buried like treasure and unearthed when we pushed-mowed too close to the ground. So, the star our mother held up was interesting to us too, and we could see why she took it inside to rinse under the kitchen sink. We watched as the maroon water swirled down the drain. She placed it on paper towel and dabbed it, and the long point cut her thumb. She sucked it and looked at the clock. “Shoot,” she said, her thumb still in her mouth, “I need to get you kids fed.” Mom rushed us to help prepare a quick dinner of grilled cheese and tater tots. She put the big white Bible she’d been given in junior high on the Formica kitchen table, with flimsy metal legs and cigarette burns that we secretly told each other were skid marks from aliens that snuck into the house on the night before Easter and pooed there. We ate our food while Mom formed placemats out of the nice kitchen towels and checked on the meatloaf and mashed potatoes and yeast rolls she whipped up for dad. Mom sent us to bed early. “I’m going to open up an art store in your dad’s shop,” she told us as she kissed us on the foreheads as we stood at the foot of the stairs. The smile left her face. “You all washed your bottoms good, didn’t you?” Cara looked away, aware that the question was really for Todd and me. We nodded. “Go on up to bed then and be good,” she said.
That night we crept silently into Cara’s small bedroom because there was an old heating vent we used for spying. There was no ductwork connected, just a heavy black register that when carefully opened offered an obscured view of the living room below. Cara did the honors, expertly using her long forefinger and thumb to grasp the metal stem that eased the vent open. We listened, our heads nearly parallel to the floor. Dad was saying no, but softly, insistently. Mom kept saying she wouldn’t get in the way, that the mufflers could help boost business. When dad asked a third time about how much she paid for the rusty things, mom made a sound I’d heard from our bus driver when he was trying to move quickly to the back of the bus to break up a fight; it was a growling yawn, followed by their bedroom door shutting too hard. Cara closed the register as precisely as she pulled a hair from her lunch. In the dim light, Cara motioned us to leave. Todd and I crawled back to our room but could hear dad trying to get into their bedroom.
The next day, mom had set up the mufflers by the road. The bright pink ones with yellow suns, and the John Deere green ones with candy cane bands of red were obviously created from spray paint; and several versions of two tones, black-gold, taupe-mauve, white-peach were from the house paint cans that stood at her feet, dripping around their rims. Her black hair held some dabs of the paint, and she was smiling broadly and waving for us to hurry up. Cara stopped in her tracks and looked at her slim watch and then at the road. She was doing math; trying to figure out how to escape. We watched her as she returned mom’s wave. “The Connors see that, and we’re screwed,” Todd said. We couldn’t move. Dad appeared on the porch behind us with a sleepy grin, carrying his boots and a cup of coffee. His expression changed when his eyes followed from us standing in a huddle toward the end of the lane where the mufflers beamed in color against the tan ditch grass. Dad put the coffee cup down, pushed his feet into the boots and picked up the coffee and slugged it down. He said, “Wonder how she got all that done?” He looked at his watch and pushed us into his truck and we eased down the lane toward mom. He stopped and got out. Dad said something to her. She grabbed him and hugged him and kissed his cheek. He helped her load up the mufflers and placed them all into the back of the truck. Mom slid in from dad’s side and pulled me onto her lap as dad shut the door, the window cracked for his cigarette smoke. Our bus was up the road, the stop sign out, blinking, waiting for the Connors to get on. Dad pulled out and headed in the opposite direction, taking the back way to our school. Mom kissed the back of my neck and I cringed. She talked and talked about what an exhibit of mufflers would look like at the 4-H fairgrounds, and even though dad spoke softly and slowly at each four-way, mom couldn’t hear him.
No one bought the mufflers, and after two weeks mom tried to get the guy she’d bought them from to buy them back, but he wouldn’t return her calls. She brought home the ones that matched the chipped wall paint and arranged them throughout the house, each according to the corresponding room color. Dad would smoke and look down at them and tell her, “I think they’re pretty darn nice, if you ask me.” But mom was getting tired again, all her energy poured out; now she didn’t tape down her bangs or paint her nails. She wore the same jeans and sweaters for days in a row. She’d sanded the three-pointed star and kept it in her purse; sometimes we’d see it next to their bed on her table, lying there like a sharp coaster. Todd called it her ninja star, but she didn’t laugh at his comment like she normally did. Dad was happy when she got several new churches to cook for. “That’s great,” he said. “Your food will be the talk of the mightier than thou set!”
We were playing euchre on a Friday night, while mom and Cara worked a family reunion at a congregation called Christ’s Singing Hills Baptist Church. Dad had said, “There aren’t any hills in this part of Indiana, and the ones down near Kentucky can’t carry a tune.” We laughed and laughed. Mom had stopped leaving little red Gideons in his metal lunch box and instead had started to focus on getting him to come along and help her. She promised food, meeting new people, casual advertising of the muffler shop and even tried to play on his emotions, telling him she couldn’t lift the tables or needed help stacking chairs. He always offered us up but nothing more. Mom didn’t stop bribing him though, as if his being inside a church, even if it were only to help her with the catering, was the medicine she needed.
Dad had lost his steel job and it plagued his mind. “Do you get that U.S. Steel lost $670 million in one quarter?” he asked his friend and co-debtor of the muffler shop. Mr. Bishop was older than our father, but not by much. It was never clear how they’d met, but dad referred to Mr. Bishop with reverence, “He’s as smart as any college fella, I’ll tell you that!” Mr. Bishop’s meaty hand clutched a splayed fan of red Maverick playing cards. He was a democrat and union man too, but he felt Reagan had some good ideas, at which dad shook his head no so vigorously his ears reddened.
“Well, let’s just play euchre with your boys and forget about all that,” said Mr. Bishop. He was essentially the moneyman, and his hands and fingernails were clean and smooth. Dad played the right bar of spades, his left hand bruised, with yellow calluses on his palm like old egg yolks. I was his teammate and barely understood the rules. I reneged and didn’t follow suit, trumped dad when I didn’t need to, and seemed ignorant of card playing in general. Dad never seemed to mind though, the only exception he took with me during those games was the way I sat in the chair, legs tucked under my butt, and leaning to the side. He’d swat at me and tell me to sit like a man, and when I did, I couldn’t see as well, and it seemed silly that a man should sit so that he couldn’t do his best.
We played hand after hand, and drank Dr. Pepper from tall bottles, ice cold out of the freezer where dad liked to get them almost slushy. My eyes were watering when the phone rang. Todd answered it in the little alcove of the rented house, his back to the card table. He turned around and told dad, “It’s Cara. She needs help with mom.”
Dad froze in mid-shuffle, and just as quickly tried to appear casual. Mr. Bishop cleared his throat and told us it was getting late anyway. He stood up and quickly slipped on his jacket, and was out the door, as if suddenly he’d become ashamed.
Todd and I sat at the card table, which now felt abandoned, as if the game had been played and completed. A lingering dread took hold. I didn’t want any more pop and offered it to Todd; he just pushed the sweaty bottle aside. Of course, we knew what was happening, maybe not the specifics, but we’d seen it before. Mom talking to herself in the Clark’s Grocery store parking lot; her asleep in the old station wagon at the city park, wrapped in a quilt, after dad searched for her for more than a day; mom manic at the PTA carnival, running from booth to booth with us in tow, talking so quickly she sounded like her voice was on fast forward. At the rubber ducky matching game, she took me by the hand and kept forcing me to turn over the ducks, with no luck. Dad had to leave the steel mill, just months before the layoff, and carry mom out of the gymnasium. The Connors started quacking at us on the bus. They said our mother loved Looney Tunes, that she felt right at home with that gang.
Dad hung up the phone and told us to put our coats on. We climbed into his pickup and headed toward the Christ’s Singing Hills Baptist Church. Dad smoked and remained silent until we stopped at the blinking four-way not far from the church. Outside, rain sprinkled the windshield. There were no other vehicles, but dad just sat at the four-way, and finally said to us, “I shouldn’t have joked about the hills singing,” then he gunned the motor as if trying to work up the courage to fly off a ramp and over a long row of parked buses.
When we pulled up, Cara stood next to mom who sat with her head down on the steps. A man also stood nearby, wearing a tie and dress pants, black rimmed glasses and a look of nervousness; he was rubbing his hands together as if to get warm.
“Stay put,” said our dad, as he popped his door and strode toward the steps. “Told you she was getting close to Kokomo again,” Todd said, but his voice contained none of his usual competitiveness. He wasn’t happy to be right, and he lowered his head to pick at a cuticle and I couldn’t help but do the same. We watched as dad shook hands with the man. Cara pointed to a door down along the brick ranch house section of the church, where a pile of spaghetti and garlic bread sticks sat in a mound next to mom’s empty Tupperware, sauce clinging to the insides, as if the plastic was slowly seeping blood. Todd rolled down his window, and I think we both held our breath, so we could try to hear. The man in the tie and glasses said something about mom just dumping it all by the door. He pointed to that mound of food again, obscene pasta and sauce and breadsticks poking out in all directions, an explosion, a road kill, our embarrassment.
Dad helped mom stand but her head was bowed, and she seemed to be sleepwalking. She wavered at dad’s side while Cara extricated mom’s purse from her shoulder. Cara slung it over her own shoulder and lifted her chin. We couldn’t hear her answers, but we could tell dad was asking her questions. Cara looked as if she were giving a deputy sheriff her account of an accident. The man tried to offer dad some money, but he pushed it away. Dad pulled mom to his chest and began walking toward the truck, Cara retrieving the empty Tupperware containers. Todd opened the truck door, got out, and jogged over to help Cara. Dad opened the other door and hefted mom inside. He told me to get in the back. Cara followed Todd as he hauled the containers to the back of the truck. Once Cara was inside the cab, and Todd and I were in the truck bed, dad reached up and opened the little sliding window. “Sit down on your butts and don’t move. No horsing around,” he said.
“Connors are going to see us I bet,” said Todd, the wind whipping his brown hair, lifting it up like a creature floating under water. My butt itched; we were all just about done with the pills Doc Stoops prescribed for our pinworms, but riding in the truck like that was insufferable. “Their aunt and their cousins go to that church,” added Todd.
Dad drove us all home, slowing down extra for pot holes and taking turns with care. It was dusk when we arrived back at the rental house. A tomcat with yellow eyes swished around the front door, pacing the sloping porch. Dad led mom inside the house and escorted her to their bedroom. He closed the door and we were left alone. Cara stood by the sink washing out the Tupperware, steam rising around her face like fog from a lake. “What happened?” said Todd, using a towel to dry the containers Cara handed him. I pushed a chair nearer and took the Tupperware from Todd and stowed them in the big cabinets above the counter. Cara didn’t answer, just scrubbed harder, using a scouring pad, her harsh strokes beating against the plastic sides. “What happened, Cara?” said Todd again. She froze then, and slowly looked at Todd. I steadied myself on the stool, looking down on their heads, almost identically brown, shiny in the kitchen light. The corner where I rose above them seemed treacherous and safe all at once, as if the structure of the house might tilt and slam us all into the shambles.
“She said the spaghetti was worms,” said Cara, her bottom lip quivering some. “She told the pastor that we had worms, that they’d somehow gotten into the containers.” Cara let out a quick sob but sucked in air so quickly and swallowed with so much effort I thought she was gagging.
On the stool, my legs felt rubbery, and the floor under me suddenly seemed pliable too. I placed my hand against the wall and steadied myself, then climbed down off the stool. Us kids sat at the table while we tried to imagine dad soothing mom. Todd said, “Will he take her to Kokomo?”
“Might,” said Cara, drinking from her mug. She’d made us each a cup of cocoa with two packets, and I let a tribe of slippery tiny marshmallows swim around in my mouth. Cara added, “But they charged us last time. Dad’s been hiding the bills from mom.”
Todd and I didn’t understand, really, what Cara meant. Money and bills, something mom and dad would never call finances, existed in that gauzy otherworld of adulthood; we understood what Cara had said as much as we did bounced checks, with its cartoon image of frivolity belying how dad tried to keep the rent paid, and the muffler shop from going under, juggling late notices and asking Mr. Bishop for cash loans. We only knew it made our stomachs hurt. On the table was our last dose of the pills. Cara simply nodded to them as she gently inserted hers at the side of her mouth. We swallowed the pills that killed our shame with the sweet chocolaty indulgence of something made all by ourselves, using more than what was directed, taking longer to drink it. We swished the cold dregs in our mugs and waited. Above the sink, ticked the plastic clock in the shape of a golden teapot. The flickering light tube just below the clock gave the kitchen the feeling of a skating rink, during an all-skate. I imagined the strobe rays bouncing off the walls and floor, while we avoided the Connors and zoomed around in figure eights, Cara’s long hair billowing and Todd’s face ruddy like our dad’s, our smiles clear and sure, unembarrassed and full of pride.
After a while, it was clear neither dad nor mom was going to rush us into bed. Cara stood up wearily and walked into the mudroom and retrieved our notebooks. She pulled out our spelling lists and sat back down at the table. Todd’s list of words was wadded up; Cara placed the paper on the table and flattened it, smoothed the creases over and over. As I watched her in the light, I experienced something that is most memorable. Maybe it was that I finally understood that she’d been taking the brunt of our mother’s melt downs or that Cara wouldn’t give up even now, after an awful day at the church and washing and putting things away and having to tell us what mom had said. Or it’s likely I was experiencing what every child does, slowly understanding that there are hearts and feelings outside of our own, that we are not the center of things. I watched Cara take a pencil from behind her ear. She looked up at us and handed us each a sheet of paper. “We’re going to do it differently from dad,” she said, managing a smile. “It’ll be just like when you take the test. Still, I’m going to switch them around, so some are easier for you and some are harder. Just do your bests. This is the test. No erasing.” Cara lowered her voice some and we listened carefully and wrote down the words she gave us. The clock ticked more while the last of the moths struck the windows, thinking our little light in the kitchen was the moon, navigating out of sorts. I don’t know why, but this test that our sister was giving us seemed more important than any in the classroom. I tried hard to visualize the words she softly spoke, turning the vowels and constants over in my mind, like a child’s mobile, the letters slowly churning in a circle but with no music. Cara gave us five minutes to check our work and ended up permitting two erasures, but neither of us erased or corrected our work. We slide the papers to Cara. She sat erect in the chair and made two marks on mine right off, but then nothing else. Todd missed one. She put a B+ at the top of my paper and an A- on his. We were proud.
“We didn’t really have dinner,” said Cara, as she got up and walked to the freezer. She pulled out the big container of Schwan’s ice cream that was only to be eaten for special occasions. Cara used a kitchen towel to set the container on the table; it was made of tin and dangerous to your fingertips if they stuck to it. A beautiful swan formed the “S” on the container so that it seemed the insides were enchanted. We smiled and followed Cara’s silent instructions for us to hold the glacial tin so that she could use the scoop. The stuff was rock solid but glorious in the mouth. We went about our work with solemnity, and Cara forcefully extracted scoop after scoop and filled our bowls to the rim. We ate and contained our giggles and grew sleepy. The last thing I can remember was Cara quietly rinsing our bowls. We must’ve climbed the stairs to our beds but it’s not something I can be deliberate on, but in the very early morning hours we woke up to wailing, and some noises downstairs, a small thud, then dad’s voice higher than we’d ever heard, saying over and over, “Patsy, Patsy, Patsy.” And then it was quiet, and we could hear Cara rise from her squeaky twin bed, the mattress from an old dead aunt, and we sat up in our own beds to listen as Cara paused at the top of the stairs. Darkness ebbed and pale green light from the budding horizon seeped in through the curtainless windows. The alarm clock glowed menacing red digits. I remember I wanted Cara to take that first step down the stairs. Knowing she was hovering there, and us stuck in our beds afraid, and the silence and cold of the morning like ice on our backs, knowing that none of us were moving, scared me more than anything. Then, our father’s footsteps creaked from underneath us, over the warped floor in their bedroom, across the carpet in the living room and stopping at the foot of the stairs and surging into quiet there. We all waited. I’ve often wondered could they see each other, could Cara at the top of the stairs and dad at the bottom really see one another.
It’s funny when your heart races at a time like that, feeling somehow like your own body’s function might drown you. Dad couldn’t have stood there long, after all, it was an emergency, but the sunlight seemed to grow as we waited. Finally, he said, “Don’t come down here.” His voice was hoarse and wired, as if he’d been up all night. We heard his footsteps again, but they couldn’t be the relief we’d needed from the silence because those four words were the most ominous we’d heard from him. The sound of him calling those words was like cold wind blowing, icy and painful, stirring our stomachs to nausea. Todd climbed out of bed and shucked on clothes and I followed. Cara stepped into our bedroom and stood there with static in her long hair, biting her nails. We all walked together to the top of the stairs. We heard dad talking but couldn’t make out what was said. He appeared at the foot of the stairs again. This time we could see him, not in detail, but his outline and his hands hanging loosely at his sides. “Don’t come down here. Your mother’s hurt and I’ve called the ambulance.” We didn’t answer. “You hear me?” he said and slipped away towards their bedroom. Cara got dressed and returned quickly to sit by us on the top stair. Todd held her hand, and I got up to sit on the other side to do the same. We rocked. The light outside swelled brighter. The ambulance’s sirens grew louder until they cut off and only the lights flashed. We all rose and went to look out Cara’s bedroom window with a view down to the driveway. There were more sounds below, some thumps and a few commands. We first saw the back of one of the EMTs, then dad at the side of the stretcher, and mom’s pale face and bare shoulders, her eyes closed, and a sheet pulled tight over her torso and legs. The other EMT appeared as they slowly made their way down the steps and to the back of the ambulance. They shoved mom inside and dad hopped in too, pulling down his cap tight, as if he might be preparing for wind. For a few moments, with our parents cloistered away behind emergency doors, we stared and didn’t speak. The ambulance backed up and turned on the sirens again, raced out of the driveway. We watched it until we couldn’t see it any longer and listened until we couldn’t hear it anymore.
We climbed down from the window ledge and made our way to the top of the stairs again. He’d told us not to go down, but we did, step by step, as if playing a silly game where the winner was the one who broke the rule but did it the slowest. Todd and I followed Cara into the living room, where their bedroom door was closed. She told us to sit down on the couch, and we did. The house was so silent our ears buzzed with the absence of noise. Cara stood in front of the bedroom door, her back to us. Her long hair seemed to pulse from the heat blowing up from a register at the baseboard. For a while, we just watched her immobilized, as if we’re playing freeze tag. Then, she took a step forward, stopped, took a deep breath, opened the bedroom door, and closed it behind her. Todd elbowed me and pointed to the rug where a large black beetle lay on its back, legs churning. We both watched it slowly spin around, never getting anywhere. Todd rose and used his big toe to push it back onto its feet. He sat back down. I stood then and used a Time magazine to scoop it up and take it to the porch.
Back on the couch, we grew hungry. We were worried, of course, afraid for our mother, but the truth was we’d gone through this before, not so much with her being hurt, and dad commanding us not to come downstairs, still, our stomachs growled. We got up and went to the kitchen, and made cinnamon toast, and Nesquik chocolate milk. I added two extra scoops in Cara’s because she loved it thick and sweet, even if the globs of powder didn’t all mix.
Outside, leaves floated to the ground. There was a misty rain that was invisible unless you looked close at the windowpanes, where a wet spray clung like decoupage. We ate, but my stomach hurt. Cara didn’t show. Todd only took a few bites. He looked at me and we locked eyes. I spit out a bite of toast, gagged and coughed. Todd handed me a paper towel to wipe my mouth. We got up and walked slowly back through the house and stood outside our parents’ bedroom door. We listened. Todd cupped his hands around his ear and pressed against the door. I stood beside him and felt like I had the stomach flu. He stepped back and put his hand on the doorknob and quietly tried to turn it, but it was locked. To us, Cara was a blended, smaller version of our parents, and in some ways fiercer because she knew how kids thought, knew too how we felt, and in that way, instead of knocking, or whining at the door, we did what we assumed she’d tell us to do. Todd and I climbed the steps back upstairs and waited, waited until after lunchtime, through the afternoon when the sky grew darker and real rain fell; we waited until the early dusk surrounded the house and made it necessary to turn on a lamp. We waited until we grew sleepy again and woke up to the slash of Mr. Bishop’s car headlights on our bedroom wall. We waited to hear something from downstairs. First, the front door opening, and some mumbled words from Mr. Bishop and a few back from dad, the door closing again, and the headlights in reverse on the wall, as if we’d hit rewind on a VCR. I suppose you’d have to come from a family where calamity and loss were integral to the atmosphere, as solid as a fancy antique hutch, to know how silence can feel so heavy, sitting not on your chest, but upon the back, pushing you under so that even your insides feel quashed. Quiet can be torture. Quiet made us, separately and unbeknownst to the other, start to cry. Todd allowed me to climb into his bed in the darkness. We could hear dad trying to get Cara to open their bedroom door. Then everything was silent again, and it was as if our father was trying to think a way out of his awful predicament, needing quiet to get it just right.
We listened as his feet coming up the stairs might go on forever, the time between steps flowing around us in the darkness, us aboard some unstable raft and floating in the space before his words came. His figure finally arrived and stood in the doorway, dad’s outline pulsing with fretful black shadow. “You boys come downstairs and help me get Cara out of that room.” We let go of one another but didn’t move. “Please,” he said, and the sad weakness in his voice made us shuck on our jeans and shirts as quickly as we could.
We were at the door with dad, but the light was bad, as dark as the grease under dad’s nails. Todd moved across the room to switch on a floor lamp, which spilled ochre light against one wall. He was back by my side so quickly it seemed he’d performed a transport trick. Dad knocked. So did Todd. With the light on, I could see our father’s eyes were red and his hairy gnarled fingers trembled. The smell of diesel fuel and cigarette smoke eased from his flannel shirt. I put my arm around his waist and he looked down. “Tell your sister to come out,” he said, and I did, I started chanting her name, softly, then louder, and with Todd still biting his lip and dad’s hand at my back I let loose even more, now hot tears and Cara’s name coming out of me faster and faster until the door clicked from behind and we heard feet running on the floor. Dad pushed inside, us falling after him. We saw a blur of Cara pulling the covers over her legs. Dad scooped her up from the bed, where the sheets held big dark circles of blood, some of it on Cara as dad held her and we crowded around them at the edge of the bed. Cara sobbed. We didn’t want to know anything. The three-pointed star lay on the floor in some more blood. Dad stood, still holding Cara. He carried her toward the door and shooed us out of the room. He cleaned us up, making Todd and I blow our noses. Cara put on a dress. We changed into corduroys and our nice sweaters. Somehow, without him saying it, we knew she was still alive, but also that she might not stay that way. Though, we didn’t understand why we were dressing up. When she’d been in hospital before, we wore our regular things.
Out on the road, there were flurries. The sky was dingy, with dirty light coming up, a long stretch of impenetrable cinder as the horizon. The heater blew hot and smelled dusty as we made our way to the hospital. In the parking lot, dad cut the engine and reached over and popped the glove compartment, took out three Gideons as if they were stacks of banded cash and handed them to us, one by one, which was more deliberate and spiritual than we’d ever seen him, other than when he was at work with steel. He didn’t speak. For a moment, dad just sat there at the steering wheel, staring ahead, as dawn spread over the parking lot. We sat quietly too, until he popped the door, and said, “Come on.”
We trailed behind him, walking toward the hospital entrance. The doors opened, and dad said again, “Come on.” Down the shiny hallway, we followed him more closely and arrived at a small archway. A sign simply read: Chapel. Dad held the door open for us and once inside, the altar at the front of the room held one flickering red votive like the ones on the tables at Pizza King we’d gotten to eat at once after mom came home again from Kokomo.
Dad motioned for us to kneel, which we did, holding our Gideons. He stood above us. His brown eyes were glassy and for a few moments he didn’t seem to know if he’d give in or not, but finally he knelt too and bowed his head. We did the same. There were no words, no sounds but the slight tinkling of water from somewhere, maybe a leaky faucet in a janitorial closet next door. The minutes seemed to ebb and pulse. I slipped back and forth from seeing the flickering candle, the worn carpet at my knees, feeling the shoulders of my family, and then dozing, and back again to the crisp edge of exhaustion. Todd’s stuffed-up breathing was like a heartbeat; Cara’s presence was rigid at my side, and the air around her like the truck’s heater. Dad made the sound of a labored sigh, and while we’d never seen him cry, we knew he was now. A kind of awful pity overtook me, and I couldn’t look long at Cara as she put her hand on dad’s trembling arm. In the darkness, with our knees hurting, he said clearly, “Please,” and said it again, pulling a handkerchief from his back pocket and blowing his nose with such force it seemed he was trying to get rid of any proof he’d cried at all.
We rose at some point, how long we’d been trying to coax some help and faith, I do not know. As we took the elevators up, I do know we were hopeful, and scared, as the doors opened, and we walked toward our sick mother. Dad stopped us in the hallway and handed us each a Bic ink pen from his flannel pocket. He told us to write our names in the Bibles, so we could show mom. He escorted us to a bench and had us sit down. Cara finished hers and handed it to dad; he sat with his legs crossed.
She held my little Gideon open and I wrote my name the best as I could. She took it and handed it too to dad, then Todd gave him his. Dad opened each one and looked at our printed names. He arranged them all in a stack on his knee and I was amazed he could balance them all there. He said, “Good work, kids.” He handed each of the Bibles back to us and got up. We stood, and he looked down at us. He swallowed hard and said in a whisper, “My god,” and he brought all of us to his side for a warm hug.
Doug Crandell has received awards from the Sherwood Anderson Foundation, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Kellogg Writers Series, Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers and the Jentel Artist Residency. A story of Doug’s appears in the Pushcart Prize 2017. NPR’s Glynn Washington chose Doug’s story for the 2017 Page-to-Screen Award. A short story was awarded the 2017 Glimmer Train Family Matters Fiction Award. Stories are forthcoming from Glimmer Train, Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and the SUN Magazine.