Jody is leaning against the cabinets, staring at the barn in the backyard, and it doesn’t surprise me when she says, “You can’t sell them?” I have to snicker. The absurdity of it.
He told her. He must have. In the hospital, she spent nights with my father. She changed his bedding, checked his vitals, brought him water. Being completely helpless makes you say things you normally wouldn’t, surely, even secrets an old man had sworn to keep.
Though Jody doesn’t believe in faith, she says, she does believe in having something to live for. It keeps your spirit alive. That barn might’ve been the only thing in the world that kept your daddy breathing, this woman wants me to know, and in a weird way I can’t deny it. Once Jody realizes how that sounds, however, she apologizes profusely.
“It just seemed like a lot more than a hobby is what I mean. Sometimes we need that. We all got things keeping us going.”
“Talk to him if you want,” I tell her, fingering Ruben’s card in my pocket. “But it won’t matter.”
Jody peers into the back room and watches for a moment as Dad sleeps. Then she washes her glass and grabs her coat and I put down the lacrosse stick and walk her to the door. On our front porch, she takes my hand, shakes it, then hugs me.
“What happened here?” She wants to know.
“Are you okay, honey? Do you need help?”
I want to tell her about the crash, how my mother came out of it and buried herself in the basement, how she stopped talking. Wanna tell her about the cold flashes, the goose bumps, the vomiting and screaming, how my father spoke of her as if she was dead. I wanna tell Jody how my mother pleaded with him to sell what’s in that barn and he said no. How my mother vanished that week and how my father collapsed a few days later and how all of this is karma, sister on probation, mother gone, father sick, and me, 17-year-old me, here feeding him, creaming his feet, washing his scars, changing his clothes. I nearly tell her about Ruben Phillips and how he asked this girl, “What d’you think he’d rather have? His life or his snakes?” But I don’t because that right here, that’s the issue. Since I’m not really sure.
When Jody says she’ll check on us in a few days I say thank you out of custom because, really, what did she do other than translate bad news? Then I shut the door and listen as she descends the steps. Then it’s a car sputtering, driving away. Soon I’m staring out the cloudy windows at the naked street. There’s a brown-rimmed bush leaning against the side of the front door. Someone needs to trim it.
“Neeell.” His voice.
It takes a few minutes to bring myself to the TV room but when I finally do, I cringe. He looks worse today. Face pale as heartbreak, eye sockets hanging like dirty laundry. Legs swollen, purple veins crisscrossing. Toes twisted like dead roots. And that smell.
Even the small motion of pausing the TV pains him. “What she say?”
“We talked about the surgeries.”
He raises a brow. He knows. “So too much then, huh?”
I hand him a glass of water just as he breaks into a coughing fit and I can almost see the water go down his neck.
I’m unsure what to tell him. I don’t want him to call someone, a doctor, insurance company, a friend, family. Every time that happens he loses his strength and gets to mumbling and saying weird things, crazy things, and it’s embarrassing. That’s when everyone freaks out and I start getting calls non-stop as if people actually care. That’s the worst part. Not unless it feels like Dad’s about to move on to the next parade do they call, not unless they feel their conscience in a vice grip and feel they need to make one call, one 15-minute call to square them with God, where they ask about school and why a girl like me is still playing sports and I’m supposed to answer like they won’t forget it all a few hours later.
What Jody said about the house seems pretty pertinent, though. I tell him. He tries to shrug it off by saying there’s no way, no way we’re going to lose this house and that we’ll find a way to get the money. I actually believe him until he twists his mouth and…here it comes, the tears and the sobbing and the outsized, swollen eyes. I try to say something funny, anything to break the moment. Eventually he throws up his hands in a can you believe this? motion and then chuckles because that right there, that’s the most activity he’s had in probably 72 hours. It’s enough to make one corner of my mouth turn up. When he catches me, he waits, watches, his brow raised as if he’s edging me on. C’mon, Nell, baby. It’s okay. I don’t smile.
His own grin fades after a time. Turns the movie back on. Harrison Ford is wheeling a kid through a hospital, asking if it hurts to breathe and what his name is, and the kid is answering back “Yes” and “Joel” and this makes me sigh.
“Do you ever watch anything else?” I ask.
There’s an urge to leave, to grab the keys and the truck and just drive. Find the highway, turn off the phone and drive. Drive until the radio turns static, until the hills merge with the sun, until the air cuts and the steam drifts off the roads. But in the end my feet don’t move. I’m not my mother. Not my sister, neither.
Dad asks for another blanket. I’m tossing one over his waist when he shakes his head. Points to his feet.
“Can you cream ‘em first? They’re cracking.”
I grab the bottle of Nivea and squirt out a half-dollar-sized portion. Rub my hands together.
Five minutes later, his mouth is open and he’s sucking in air like we’re running out of it. He’s asleep.
I pause the movie, breathe in the silence. Outside, the gloom of an early morning shower is starting to fade, the heat now soaked and sticky and misting the barn in a vapory jacket. Normally there are birds fluttering around the barn, sheltering within the nooks. Right now, they must have better things to do.
With my hands on my lacrosse stick, my mind wanders, my eyes drifting toward sleep. Soon, the deep greens of the school fields are all around me. I search for my teammates but find only shadows, rough and dark, shadows and dust. My coach’s voice, it’s right here, right beside me, lush and deep and warm and I’m running. Sweat pouring. Knees bloodied. The crack of my stick. A referee’s whistle. My cleats rip through dirt and it splashes over my eyes. Practices and games and travel and games and practices. Remember? Remember?
Coach’s voice, I can hear him, shouting Nelly! Nelly! His face, though, his face, I can’t see it. Can’t recall it. Shadows and dust. Lacrosse, and everything that goes with it, it’s all melting away like a puddle on a warm summer day. It’s almost a relief when I hear another voice and open my eyes.
“Nell. Hey, Nell. Why’d you stop it? Where’s the remote?”
Dad’s voice. His face is contorted; the man winces whenever he sits up. He has four blankets spread across his body, and the odor from the pail beside him is starting to become unbearable. But no, he needs the remote and he needs the movie and when I cross my arms and fall back against the couch, it almost feels like I’m the one strapped to a hospital bed.