Birds on a Wire – Episode 8

My room at Carla’s house sat at the end of a long, dark hallway. I hated it because it seemed so ominous. Light barely made it into the tiny windows of the bedroom thanks to the giant oak trees that surrounded her house. The trees were so close that when storms moved through the tree limbs would whip the back side and roof of the house. Long ago, I had warned her and my son-in-law to cut back the trees or run the risk of damage during a storm, but neither of them seemed too concerned. The many years since then without any incidents had proven me to be over-cautious. They loved those big, old oaks.

I tried to spend as much time as possible outside my room to escape the darkness. I hadn’t been afraid of the dark since I was a tiny boy, but I found myself ever more fearful as I had gotten older as if my light was slowly being snuffed out. I couldn’t help but feel that way given my weakened condition. I never explained it to Carla for fear that she’d find me foolish. I simply told her that I wanted the bedside lamp on at all times, and after some initial resistance, she acquiesced.

I hadn’t wanted to move into Carla’s home. I wanted to stay in mine and Barbara’s house, but Carla insisted that I move in with her. She had that same forceful nature that made me love her mother so much. Had I not seen so much of Barbara in her, I would have put up more of a fight. I never liked to say no to Barbara.

My home nurse changed once I moved in with Carla. The surly, tattooed nurse didn’t want to drive to the next town over every day to watch over me, so the insurer assigned me a new nurse, Marty. The move to Carla’s bothered me, but this change pleased me. I had never liked that nurse, so I welcomed the change.

On the first day with the new nurse, Carla popped her head in my room as I sat up in the bed watching the small TV across the room.

“Daddy, Marty’s here,” she announced.

I simply smiled and nodded my head slightly. I could feel the tug of the cannulas, so I began fussing with the oxygen tube that snaked across my chest.

Marty stepped into the room behind Carla and smiled at me.

“Good morning, Mr. Dunn. I’m Marty.” He took three steps with his long legs and closed the gap between us. He extended his hand to greet me, and I slowly reached up to shake it. He clasped his other hand on top of mine and smiled more broadly. “It’s nice to finally meet you. I’ve heard a lot about you.”

I raised my eyes in question and exhaled a “Huh?”

I didn’t have to say more before he explained, “I reviewed your file and spoke to Loni.”

“Loni?”

“Your previous nurse.”

I shook my head to confirm or acknowledge my ignorance. I didn’t know which. I had never learned the other nurse’s name. I just knew I didn’t like her.

Marty stood at least six feet tall and had a berth about him that suggested he had played football at some point. He looked nothing like a nurse or even someone who could care for anything other than a tiny ball clutched in his big hands. I thought the insurer had made a mistake, that they had accidentally picked the wrong person to care for me, but those doubts took a back seat to an undercurrent of recognition that troubled me from the moment he stepped into my room.

I felt like I knew Marty already, that I had seen him before a lifetime ago. I knew this wasn’t possible given our vast age difference. He couldn’t have been a day over 35. That first day he stayed with me, I stared at him hard every time he was in my room.

He noticed the way I stared at him and asked, “Are you okay, Mr. Dunn?”

I shook my head to say that I was. I finally gathered the strength to ask him where he was from.

“Buford,” he replied. “Do you know anyone there?”

I had moved to Buford decades ago to live with my cousin and work at the mill. That’s where I had met Barbara and where we had lived at first before I moved onto another job and we moved to Lyndon. Suddenly, recognition flooded my mind.

He’d been dead for over 20 years, but I finally determined why I felt I had seen Marty before. He looked just like my cousin. Just the mention of Buford brought back memories of him and our brief time together. It had been like a blip in my life, my time with my cousin, because everything during that time took a backseat to Barbara. Once she entered my life, everything else became a footnote.

The recognition startled me, and Marty paused as he watched me react. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he asked.

I didn’t respond immediately, so he checked my vitals, gave me some water, and tried to discern if there was something wrong. I whispered that I was fine, but he stayed focused on me for a few moments longer before he took a seat next to my bed.

He looked at me and smiled. “So what do you do all day?” He chuckled at his own question, and I let out a wispy laugh that was barely audible. He enjoyed my reaction, and we talked as much as I could for most of that first day.

His resemblance to my cousin entranced me. I didn’t want him to leave when Carla came home from work. He waved goodbye as he stepped out of my room, and for a moment, I thought my cousin was leaving for his shift at the mill and that I was back in that run-down old apartment down the street from the mill and the diner. If only I could get back to that time, then maybe I could find Barbara and tell her to come home.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 7

“Promise me you’ll take care of the kids,” Barbara pleaded. She grabbed my hand and squeezed it hard. Her grip surprised me. Barbara had always been a small woman with tiny hands, but she had this fierce demeanor about her that made people notice her. Rudy had found out the hard way when he was in high school and had been caught drinking at school. He says he’ll never forget the look in his mom’s eyes nor the way she screamed at him when she brought him home after he was suspended. I’ll never forget that incident either. Barbara wouldn’t let me.

“Of course,” I said. I felt confused as if I didn’t understand what I had passed between us. Barbara sat in her chair next to mine in the living room. Both chairs faced the TV, but the TV was turned off and I could see our reflections in the darkened screen. Barbara’s seemed to fade in and out in a haunting way, which startled me. I turned to look at her.

“Let’s talk about something else,” I suggested.

Barbara looked at me in the way she’d look at a lost puppy. She sighed slightly under her breath just as she did when the kids tested her patience. “We have to be realistic, Jim.”

I shook my head as if I could make it all go away. Barbara disappeared for a moment. I rubbed my eyes and she reappeared. I took a deep breath in relief. “I’m never going to give up. You know that. I can’t.”

“I know that, dear, but some things are inevitable.”

“Not now. It’s too early.”

“We don’t get to choose, dear.”

“I choose to believe.”

She smiled and looked at me with her glistening eyes, and for a moment, I was transported to a time long ago when I sat in the diner eating my eggs and she smiled at me in much the same way. In that instant, she glowed in the beauty of youth. It took my breath away.

I reached out to grab her hand. I wanted to pull her in to me and kiss her in the way I had back then. The passion surged within my chest and throbbed like the most wonderful pain I had ever experienced. I floated on the clouds with the wind in my face. I felt the warmth of the sun. I was as light as a beautiful spring day.

I heard a bump and it startled me awake. Barbara was gone, as ephemeral as a shooting star. I struggled to determine if my moment with her was real or a dream.

“Did I wake you?” the nurse asked.

I looked up from my bed and saw her sitting in the chair near the foot board. Her piercings glistened in the sunlight that seeped into the room. Her dark tattoos seemed ominous like a visible cancer that encroached on her arm. Seeing her disappointed me. I had gone nowhere. Barbara hadn’t returned. Nothing had changed.

“Yes, you did,” I said spitefully. I wanted her to feel my disdain for her. She wasn’t Barbara and she’d never take her place. I’d rather be alone than have her in my house, but my kids insisted that she stay with me. I hadn’t taken care of them like I had promised, and now, they were punishing me for not honoring their mother’s wishes.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Dunn. Maybe you can go back to sleep.”

“I don’t want to go back to sleep.”

“Do you want me to make you some breakfast?”

I thought for a moment. I wanted her out of my room. “Yes.”

She smiled and stood up. “The usual?”

“Yes.”

I watched her leave the room to make my scrambled eggs and toast. She didn’t make it like Barbara did, but Barbara wasn’t here to show her how I liked it.

I wanted to get up out of bed, but the weight on my chest pushed down upon me. I tried to sit up but could only flail a moment before I gave up. A ray of sunlight crept across my room toward me. I thought of calling the nurse back into my room to adjust the blinds, but my hunger exceeded my discomfort from the bright light that shined in my face.

I dozed, and only the clanking of the plate and glass of juice forced me awake. The nurse bent over before me with my breakfast on a tray. She moved so slowly that I feared I was dreaming again. Only when she started adjusting my pillows and helping me sit up did I realize she was truly there and it was time to eat.

She pushed the tray toward me. “Do you want me to help you?”

I shook my head side to side. Her question annoyed me. I put the over-dry scrambled eggs to my mouth and chewed them. I clutched the damp toast in one hand and nibbled it as I ate the eggs. Barbara’s were way better.

I heard a door bang shut in the living room and briefly looked toward my bedroom door. The nurse stood up and left the room without a word, and I finished my breakfast. I drank my juice and dribbled a little on the bed sheets, but I stamped out the stain with my hand. I pushed the tray down to my knees. I felt too weak to put it to the side. I started to call the nurse when Carla entered the room with the nurse trailing behind her.

“Good morning, daddy,” she sounded grim despite the greeting.

“Good morning.”

“How are you feeling?”

I hated the question. It had been asked of me so much lately that I had begun to feel it was a trick question. I gave my stock, defensive response, “Okay.”

She sat beside me on the bed, while the nurse grabbed the tray and left the room. She put her tiny hand on mine and squeezed it, which reminded me of the dream I had just had. She kept talking to me despite my slow and muddled responses. I loved hearing her voice. It reminded me so much of Barbara’s that it almost lulled me to sleep.

Out of nowhere she said, “I’d like you to move in with us.”

My eyes opened wide and I looked at her in shock or something resembling fear. I said nothing at first.

“What do you think?” she asked after a few more moments of silence.

“Your mother will be worried if she comes home and I’m gone.”

Carla caught her breath and squeezed my hand again. “Daddy…”

She turned away, and somehow I knew I had no choice in the matter, and in that moment, I think I realized that Barbara was never coming home again.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 6

I sat in my chair staring out the window in my living room. The day had turned cloudy and dreary threatening rain at the slightest provocation. Only a few hours earlier, it had been clear and sunny as I watched the sun rise from my kitchen table. I felt like a prisoner in my own home only able to see the world outside but not experience it as all people were meant to do.

The woman my kids hired to look after me sat across from me reading her damn book and ignoring me. I turned my attention to her and cleared my throat. It had been weeks since my brief stay in the hospital, but I remained confined to the walker that stood beside my chair openly mocking my condition. The nurse, if that’s what she really was, forced me to use the damn thing day after day. I couldn’t sit in peace at all without her trying to encourage me to get up and walk around. When she wasn’t torturing me, she sat quietly reading her book like I wasn’t there.

I didn’t like her. I knew she was in cahoots with Carla and Rudy because she refused to tell me where Barbara was. She pretended that she didn’t know who Barbara was and seemed agitated every time I asked her about my wife. I also didn’t like the way she looked. She had a studded nose ring and multiple earrings on each ear. She also had a tattoo that covered most of her left arm. Barbara would have never let such a woman in our house.

“I’m thirsty,” I said. My voice was still hoarse and feeble. Most people had to lean toward me to understand what I said, but this woman had sharp ears and apparently could hear me curse her name one room away.

She looked over the top of her book at me and smiled. “Sure thing, Mr. Dunn. What would you like?”

She put her book on the coffee table as she waited for my answer. She leaned toward me as if I held the secret meaning of life and was about to spill my guts. For a brief moment, I thought about asking for a shot of whiskey. It had been so long since I had tasted good whiskey, and I suddenly had a hankering for it. A cigarette, too. Instead, I thought of Barbara and how my drinking had affected her years ago and how she had spent more than half of our marriage trying to get me to quit smoking, and I decided that lemonade would be just fine.

I watched the nurse pad off toward my kitchen in her glaring white sneakers and scrubs. I couldn’t shake the contrast of her nurse’s garb and the tattoos and piercings. I cursed her under my breath.

“Did you say something, Mr. Dunn?” she asked as she came back into the room with a glass of lemonade in one hand and a towel in another.

Startled by her question, I said the first thing that came to mind. “When will Carla be here?”

“Probably about the same time she usually gets here.”

I disliked her inexact response. I shook my head before she put the glass to my lips. “And what time is that?”

“6 o’clock,” she said titling the glass up so that I could drink more. Some lemonade dribbled down my chin, and she wiped it with the towel in her other hand. She pulled the glass back so I could take a breath.

“What time is it now?” I asked.

“2 o’clock.”

I sighed and shook my head. The nurse seemed amused.

“Don’t worry, Mr. Dunn, I’m here to take care of you.”

“Where’s Barbara?” I blurted between sips. “My wife.”

“Mr. Dunn…”

“I know you know where she is.”

“I’m sorry…”

“No, tell me. Please.”

She put the glass on the coffee table without the coaster, something Barbara would never have allowed in our house, but I ignored it because I could sense that I had an opportunity.

“When is the last time you saw your wife, Mr. Dunn?” she asked as if she were a police investigator on one of those crime shows she watched when she wasn’t reading her book.

I thought for a moment and tried to determine when she had walked out of our bedroom on that morning she left, but time had become distorted in my mind. A day alone at home felt like a week. A week in the hospital felt like an eternity.

“Last week,” I said giving up on any concept of time.

“Really?” she said ticking her head to one side like a dog when it hears an unusual sound. “When I was here last week?”

“Were you here last week?” I asked, confused. She liked to play mind games with me. “No, before you ever came here.”

“I’ve been with you for four months, Mr. Dunn.”

“Four months?”

“Yes, and I haven’t met your wife.”

Her response dumbfounded me. I asked for more lemonade because I didn’t know what else to say. She retreated to the kitchen again, and I turned to watch the rain drops pelt the window in my living room. The drops began as a sparse series of bulbous drops on my window and quickly coalesced together as the rain storm entombed my house. All was silent save for the rain on my window. I leaned back and closed my eyes and wondered what had kept Barbara away for so long.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 5

I awakened to an awful, pungent smell that lingered around me as if it were being blown on me by some unseen fan. I twitched my nose and tried to breathe through my mouth to avoid the horrible odor, but I failed to ward it off. My eyes drooped and felt weak. Everything seemed fuzzy like those Monet paintings that Barbara loved so much. I could barely discern the outline of Rudy and Carla standing before me. Both looked at me with an expression of concern.

“How do you feel, Dad?” Rudy asked. His voice sounded strained, unsteady. His lips moved out of sync with his words as if he were in a badly-dubbed movie. The disconnect startled me and I wondered if I were dreaming or if he really was talking to me. I froze and said nothing. I just stared at him dumbfounded poking that uncomfortable cannula that crimped my nose.

“Dad?”

Carla grabbed my hand and squeezed it. “Dad?”

Each of them tensed almost in unison and leaned into me. They had always had that symbiotic relationship – feeling and sensing together like twins even though they were born almost two years apart. Barbara and I had struggled so long to have them that we treated them like the miracles they were. I’m sure they often had to retreat to each other to resist the fussy overprotective tendencies of their parents.

“Where is your mother?” I asked finally after a few rushed breaths. I felt winded after holding my breath to avoid the odor.

Carla’s eyes pooled with tears and one escaped down her cheek. Rudy’s eyes glistened in the harsh light of the room, and at that moment, I realized I wasn’t in my room. It startled me, this realization, and I spun my head side to side to trying to determine where I was. Nothing seemed familiar. I wondered how I had gotten into the strange room and unfamiliar bed. I tried to sit up, but some invisible force craned its knee into my chest. My entire body ached.

“Mom’s not here,” Rudy said after a long pause. Carla shot him a look that almost knocked him down, but she said nothing. More tears rolled down her high cheekbones. I looked from her to Rudy hoping for some answer to the only question I cared about.

“Where am I?” I asked.

“You’re in the hospital,” Carla said.

“Why?” This revelation startled me.

“You fell,” she replied. Her voice seemed distant, vacant. She peered at her brother as if she wanted him to fill in the blanks. I looked from her to him and back, but nothing more came. It all seemed too much and I suddenly felt overwhelmed and exhausted. I closed my eyes relieved to not have to stare at my children. Their refusal to tell me where their mother was exasperated me to no end.

When I opened my eyes again, Rudy and Carla had moved to the corner of the room next to the door and were whispering to each other. Had this been many years ago when I was younger, I would have been able to hear them, but time had played an awful joke on my senses. I struggled to hear even the most normal level of conversation, so whispers, even those only a few feet away, were out of the question. I waved them off in my imagination annoyed that they’d blatantly discuss something in front of me without including me.

Carla noticed me staring at them first, and she abruptly stopped talking. Rudy turned to me and smiled wanly, and both of them walked back to my bedside. Neither said a word at first. Carla touched my hand lightly and then squeezed it in hers. My large hand swallowed her tiny paw. It felt so delicate and soft that I feared I would break it if I squeezed back too hard, but swelling and stiffness stunted my clumsy, blunt grip.

“Dad…,” Rudy started, “you…broke your hip…” His voice hitched but he maintained eye contact with me. For a moment I could not understand what he said. I thought it impossible. I had done no such thing. I searched my memory for something that would confirm what he said, but nothing came.

Carla turned away and even I heard her stifled cry. I watched her back move away from me and turned toward to my son.

“We’re going to get someone to stay with you when you go back home,” my son continued.

“Tell your mother I need her to come home.”

“Dad…”

“Please. She’ll understand. She’ll forgive me if she knows I need her.”

“She’s not coming home.”

“Why not?”

“Dad…”

Rudy shook his head and tightened his lips across his face as if he were angry. At who I did not know. Barbara’s absence confused me. She never told me what I had done, and now, when I needed her most, she refused to help me. It didn’t make any sense. I wanted to scream out her name hoping that she stood just outside my room waiting for me to call to her as a indication of how much I loved her.

Barbara had never been so angry with me that she avoided me for so long. One time in April 1975 she left me for a couple of days after I had come home late drunk and unruly several days in a row. The pressure of trying to have kids had driven me to drinking a few years earlier, but I had kept it under control for the most part using it as an escape in the evenings or weekends. By early 1975 I had swerved onto an unsustainable path and fallen into the habit of going out with my coworkers after the work day ended for a few beers – more than a few in reality. Barbara tried to be understanding, but by that spring, it became too much, so she left me.

Only after Barbara had packed her bags and left for her mother’s house, did I realize that I had a problem. I managed to go to her mother’s house and embarrass myself, but I convinced her that I would clean up my act. I kept my promise. Almost losing Barbara had scared me straight. A year later we welcomed Carla into our lives and 19 months later Rudy followed her. I haven’t had a drink in 40 years.

Whatever I had done could not possibly be worse than being a drunkard husband, but Barbara had been gone several days now, which was the longest she’d been out of my sight since that spring in the 1970s. Her absence worried and scared me, yet my children remained mum. I cared less about my hip or any other physical ailment that beset me. I needed Barbara. I wanted to apologize to her for whatever I had done. The urge to yell out her name returned., but I couldn’t muster the breath to do so. Instead, I just stared at my son who clung to the side of my bed as if it would roll away. He stood there unblinking and unsure of what to say. My head listed to the side and I lost myself in the pale wall of the hospital room.