They sat across from each other in a corner booth at a diner close to their home town. They hadn’t seen each other for two years, but this is the sort of thing that brings family together. They studied their menus for what seemed an eternity and he drifted off into space before one of them spoke.
“What are you thinking?” she asked him.
“When we were kids. Modeling clay. Papier–mâché.” He took a sip of water. “Remember?
After dinner? When he had time he showed me how to make the papier–mâché horses?”
“No, about ordering,” she said. “What are you thinking? BLT? Cheeseburger?”
“Not hungry.” He put down the menu. The waitress came to take their orders.
The girl took one last glance at both sides of the menu. “Let’s see. Two Cheeseburgers with fries and two Cokes.”
After the waitress had gone, she faced him. “Is that okay? I ordered you a burger?” When he didn’t answer, she continued. “Listen, eventually it happens to everyone. Hey, I died once.”
“Haven’t we all,” he said, distractedly between sips of ice water.
“I mean really died. My heart stopped and everything. For about, oh, about two minutes.” He tilted his head. “Honestly,” she said, “I was in bed one night, trying to fall asleep. My heartbeat quickened, then stopped altogether. I heard a loud crash and gulped in a massive amount of air. Everything went beige. I didn’t feel my body, just an awareness. It hurt, but I have to admit,” she said while busting ice cubes between her back teeth, “it was kind of neat.”
She placed her hands in her lap to make room for the plates of food. He fiddled with his fries. She ate quickly. His lunch sat untouched. “Hey, give me your pickle,” she said with her mouth full, then reached into her backpack for a cigarette. “Lung cancer’s got to suck.”
She lit one up.
“How can you be callous at a time like this?”
“Hey!” she said, pointing the cigarette at him, “he hated me. You can’t see the scars, but I got them.” She took a series of drags and looked vaguely out the window. “It don’t matter,” she said, “got myself a real man to take care of me. A good one. We got this cute mobile home near a river.” She blew smoke out of the side of her mouth. “I even planted flowers.”
“Where is this real man now?” he said.
“Working. Gotta haul a huge one across the interstate. He’ll be back in three days.”
“Huge one what?”
“Eighteen–wheeler, duh.” She stamped out her cigarette and eyed him slyly. “Guess what?” Before he had a chance to answer she told him. “I’m pregnant,” she said, “and we ain’t getting married.”
“What if this guy decides to split? Like the others?”
“We’re tight, Jay, tight.” She crossed her fingers to prove it.
“This is the last time you’ll see dad. You aren’t going to tell him, right?”
Her eyes roamed off into the distance. “Mud pie,” she said.
“When you see dad, promise me you won’t tell him that you’re pregnant.”
“No, wait,” she said, “lemon cream.”
When the waitress came, she ordered a slice of lemon cream pie and he ordered coffee.
“This morning when I woke up, I made a cup of coffee, sat on the front step and it started again Jay,” she said, shaking her head. “The words, like bubbles, crowding my senses, packed in and smothering. Air, Jason, air. I gotta blow the words out.” She reached for another cigarette. “A ringing in my head, making no sense. It follows me everywhere. And oh…my fucking brain.” She lit up again.
“Maybe you ought to talk to someone.”
“I am!” She blew smoke into his face, “I’m talking to you!” The dessert and coffee came and she waited until her cigarette was finished. He paid the bill and they went.
She was here, far from home, he thought, for a reason. She was far away in spirit, near in detriment. She was never settled. She lived inside a metal cocoon. She shielded herself, all ligament and bone, with a progression of boyfriends in the form of muscle and brawn. Rage and fervor. She moved among fog and soot in the fermented meadows of industry, something she called the workplace. The quintessential un-fairytale any girl would never have dreamt for her future. She was here, far from home, he thought, for a reason.
The hospital parking lot was full. They drove around until they found a parking space in the last row. He turned the car off. Through the windshield he glared at the brick building that housed their father’s illness, his once robust flesh having fallen from his skeleton over the course of months.
“You ready?” he asked his sister. Her eyes were glazed over. The throbbing of nonsensical syllables commenced inside her head. She held her forehead in her palm.
“I guess,” she said.
The corridor to the cancer ward smelled like medicated Jell-O and she excused herself to vomit. When she came out of the restroom, her brother grabbed her elbow and led her back downstairs to the lobby.
“I better go alone,” he said.
She spat on the floor. “Why? Don’t you trust me?”
“I’m not sure. I know you, I mean, I know the two of you stopped talking.”
“As you said earlier, it will be the last time I see him. I won’t fuck this up. He doesn’t have to know the details.”
No fading man would convert her into milquetoast, he knew that. She was bruised and she wore her bruise like a merit badge. He tried to think, but his brain too was warped. Besides, there was no time for reflection. A gift shop arrested her attention.
“Jason, come here look at this,” she said. She held up a teddy bear wearing a heart embroidered pullover with a “Get Well” sash draped diagonally across its chest.
“I think it’s too late for that,” he said.
“For the baby!” she said. “I want this for the baby!” She eyed other items. “How much money you got?” she said.
“Ten, twenty, I don’t know,” he said. “Come, let’s go.”
“Buy this for me, please?” she said. “For your niece or nephew to be?” He shelled out ten bucks for the bear and asked the salesgirl for a bag to conceal it. When they finally made their way back up a doctor informed them that their father had about an hour to live. They proceeded to his room, then she held her brother back.
“Actually,” she said, looking briefly over her shoulder, “I want to see him alone. Then you can come in.”
“There isn’t much time. What have you got to say that I can’t hear?” he said.
“A lot,” she said. “Did I tell you he was in touch with me a month ago?”
“That’s odd,” he said, “for what?”
“For my forgiveness, Jay” she said, “why else would a dying man call?”
The window was cracked and paint chips rested on the sill. An ambulance’s siren interrogated what was otherwise peace and like her affectations she didn’t know whether the vehicle was coming or going. She hadn’t seen her father since she ran away at sixteen, and Christ, was he thin. Would he recognize her? If yes, what would he recognize? What would float back to him? She sat at his bedside and lit a cigarette, blowing smoke out of the side of her mouth. Her father’s face was watery. He looked five-hundred years old. His wispy white hair was damp against his ashen skin. She sat awhile, wondering what he thought, half here and half there, feeling the weight of her presence, no doubt. He knew.
“Is Jason here?” he said. “Did my boy come with you?”
He’s dying among paint chips and death bells, she thought, but I’ve been dead for ages. The resistance barring lucidity throughout the course of her life snapped like a frayed rope. Her head was tainted with explicit recollections: the clinking of bottles and his booze-soaked breath.
“No,” she said, taking the bear out of the bag. “Jason wouldn’t come.” The syntax inside her head was clear as gin. The drunken fingers wouldn’t quit. And I was just a kid, she thought. She placed the bear beside him on the bed.
Her brother waited in the hallway as she made a dash for the elevator. “Where are you going?” he said as she passed him. She pressed the elevator button until the doors opened. “Wait,” he said, “I want to see him.” She looked into his oblivious eyes. The boyish eyes he never grew out of. The triumphant son. The winning one.
“He’s dead,” she said. The irony of sadness and relief rose and fell over his expression. This is a hospital, she thought, what was I thinking? From a distance, Jason witnessed a nurse and a doctor enter his father’s room.
“What did he say? What did you do?”
“Come on, Jay” she said, rubbing her belly, “I’m sick, I need air. The baby, please.” He hesitated before stepping onto the elevator. “For fuck’s sake, Jason, take me out of this place!”
The sun bloomed over the hills beyond. A brisk wind snapped past; the air was strung-out with honeysuckle. They drove in silence until they entered the highway. “Are you staying for the funeral?” he asked her. “There are arrangements to make—”
“No,” she said, looking out the window. “Just take me to the bus station.” He looked over at his sister and was hit with a sharp pang of guilt.
“I can’t believe he’s gone,” he said. “There was so much I needed to tell him.”