Push – Final Episode

Marvin Cantor pushed his way up the stairs leading out of the subway station. He felt like he was swimming against a school of fish that had surrounded him. Most people dodged left and right to avoid him as he rushed up the steps. He felt his right shoe flapping loosely against his foot, and he feared that he’d lose it, but with a thousand dollars waiting for him, he didn’t have to worry. Or did he? What if the strange man wasn’t waiting for him in the alley as he’d promised? A moment of panic washed over him. Had he killed another man for nothing?

The daylight flashed against his face as he stepped from the station’s exit. The crowded sidewalk crushed him, but people made way for him as he turned left and headed toward First and Macon streets. He turned left again and hurried through a narrow alley until he came out on 10th Avenue. He stopped for  a moment and observed the rush hour crowd walking by. He hesitantly turned and looked down the alley, but no one was following him as he had feared. He took a deep breath. The sweat beneath his layers of clothes chilled his skin. He’d use some of the money to spend the night in a hostel, maybe even get a shower. He couldn’t remember the last time he had taken a shower.

He walked as casually as he could down 10th until he passed in front of Schulz’s. He peered through the big windows, but he didn’t see Schulz. He walked by and turned down the alley next to the deli. Down a ways next to the dumpster, stood a dark figure leaning next to the wall. Marvin felt as if someone had trespassed into his home. This was his alley. He spent many nights here.

He had a sense of unease as he approached the dumpster. He could barely see the man’s face as he approached him. He waited for the stranger to speak to him as he stopped a few feet before the metal trash bin. The door to Schulz’s deli was to his left. The man stood up straight and took a step toward him.

“Did you do it?” he asked.

“Yes.” Marvin’s voice shook.

“Did he die?” The man seemed agitated.

“Yes.”

“Did you see the body?”

Marvin hesitated. “No, I had to get out of there before the cops came.”

The stranger sighed. “How do you know he’s dead?”

Many thoughts raced through Marvin’s head. His memory flashed back to the moment he had pushed the man onto the tracks. He remembered distinctly the wailing of the train’s horn, the screams of the crowd, the rush of the riders as they went to and fro on the platform. He had heard a sickening thud and a screech of metal on metal, but he didn’t turn around to see anything. He’d simply hurried away, too scared to see what had happened as a result of his actions.

The truth was that he regretted what he had done. He didn’t know the man that he had pushed onto the tracks, and the stranger hadn’t shared anything about the man to justify his killing, but Marvin was desperate. He needed the money.

“I heard the train hit him,” Marvin replied.

“I need more proof than that.”

“He’s dead. Now, where’s my money?” Marvin tried to sound confident, but it came out weak.

“You don’t get to decide when I give you the money.”

Marvin took a step back and stammered, “I did what you asked.”

“You’re nothing but some worthless homeless guy. You don’t get to decide anything.”

“Come on, man, I just need the money. I didn’t want to kill someone. I don’t even know why you wanted him dead. I don’t care. I just want my money.”

“I’ll tell you why. Because he was a worthless husband. His wife hated him. She wanted him dead.”

Marvin kept his eyes on the man. A fear rippled down his spine. He felt a breeze to his left and turned to see Schulz opening the back door to the deli. He thought to tell Schulz to go back inside, but as he turned to the old man, he noticed a long shiny object in his hand. Before he had time to react, Schulz plunged the knife into his chest. Marvin stumbled backwards and looked at Schulz in shock. He felt the warm blood run down his chest. He put his hand on the handle that protruded from his body, but he was too weak to remove it. The stranger moved closer to him and sneered at him as he fell to his knees.

The alley spun around him alternating between light and dark. He thought he could hear the rush of blood from his chest. He tried to put his hand on his wound, but both of his hands were too heavy to lift. Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Feet shuffled near him. A car horn honked in the distance. The din of traffic echoed through the alley.

He heard muffled voices over him, but he couldn’t discern what they were saying. He opened his eyes and strained to see, but his eyes were blurred by tears. He tried to say something, but he couldn’t force any words from his mouth. He heard footsteps moving away from him. Nothing but the usual sounds of the city engulfed him as the blood drained from his chest.

His breathing became labored and his chest hitched and jerked before he took his final breath. His last thoughts were of the sound the man’s body had made when the train had hit him.

 

Push – Episode 5

Fred stepped through the door of his home into the dark hallway just outside the kitchen. The garage door rattled shut behind him piercing the silence that otherwise engulfed him. Another dreadful week had come to a close ending with him exhausted and ready to go to bed at 8 PM. He crossed the kitchen diagonally and beat a hasty path to his office where he dropped his briefcase onto an empty chair. He shrugged off his rain coat and hung it on the hook behind his door before he returned to the kitchen.

He took a deep breath and surveyed his surroundings. He listened for any signs of Shelly, but he knew she was out with friends for the night. She did that a lot lately, more so than she had before Alan moved out. When Alan lived with them, she spent more time at home with their son, cooking meals or just watching TV with him. They’d always been close, so much so that he often felt like a third wheel or an interloper in his own home. That had changed now.

The light above him struggled to fend off the darkness in the living room. The house felt somber and abandoned without his wife or son around. Fred pulled open the cabinet near the refrigerator and removed a bottle of scotch. He filled a small glass with the honey-colored liquid and gulped it down. The burn made him exhale loudly. He poured another and held it above his head, staring at the liquid through the kitchen light before he sucked it down too. He quickly lost track of how many drinks he had poured.

He hadn’t eaten anything since lunch, and although he was hungry, he didn’t feel like eating. Exhaustion weighed on his shoulders and the alcohol made it worse. He felt lightheaded. His stomach rumbled like a volcano spitting hot lava. The scotch wasn’t settling well. A burp threatened to erupt into vomit. He braced himself against the countertop. In spite of it all, he downed another glass.

He didn’t want to end up on the floor again. Shelly had yelled at him before for passing out in the kitchen. He stumbled a bit as he stepped toward the stairs, but he managed to navigate them quite well. His feet felt like they were trudging through wet cement. His head undulated to a dull ache as his stomach protested. The door to his bedroom stood open, but it seemed smaller than usual. He bumped his shoulder against the door frame as he entered, which temporarily diverted his attention from everything else that ailed him. He yelped and rubbed his throbbing shoulder.

He stumbled to the bed and tried to remove his shoes before he fell on top of the comforter. His face smashed against the plush material of the bed covering making it hard for him to open his right eye. He couldn’t move or he didn’t want to move. The weight of the day overwhelmed him and crushed him into the bed. He just wanted to sleep, to give into the forces that threatened to drown him at that very moment.

Before he drifted into an intoxicating sleep, several thoughts drifted through his mind, but he was too drunk to understand them or grasp the consequences that lay before him.

Shelly wasn’t out with friends. She was having an affair with another man, a younger man. He knew this man but couldn’t picture his face.

Alan had left him a threatening message, but he had deleted it before he heard his son say what he had been thinking all along.

Paolo had accosted him outside his office at lunch. The big man had not been happy about losing the lawsuit and accused him of seedy tactics to win one for his wealthy client. He could still smell the cheesesteak on Paolo’s breath, and it made him sick.

His life spiraled out of control. He floated above his body and saw himself sprawled out on the bed below him. He looked around him and saw his wife embracing the younger man, his son loading a gun beneath the kitchen table, and Paolo walking toward him with a big stick in his hand. He turned away and drifted into a fitful sleep.

Push – Episode 4

Fred sat across the table from Paolo Fenta and his lawyer, Ricardo Montes. Montes looked ridiculous in his over-sized, double-breasted suit. The shoulder pads hung over the edge of his jaunty shoulders. His skinny neck struggled to fill the collar of his shirt. He looked like a bad mob character from the 1980s with his garish mismatch of colors – dark, blue satin shirt, pale green tie, and forest green suit. He was beyond naturally tanned and had dark hair greased back like some beatnik from the 1950s. The visual dissonance made Fred queasy.

Paolo offered no relief. He wore a tight, floral-patterned, short-sleeved shirt and dress slacks that were probably a size too small. Unlike Ricardo, he threatened to burst from his clothes given his considerable bulk. His belly protested against the table as Paolo leaned on his elbows to listen to what Fred had to say. Ricardo sat back as if daring Fred to say something that he didn’t like.

“This is my client’s final offer,” Fred announced as he slid the paperwork across the table to Ricardo.

Ricardo eyed him suspiciously as he pulled the paper toward him. “Where is your client?”

“He wasn’t able to make it today. He had an important meeting at work.”

“I’m sure he’s making six figures whatever he’s doing today. Meanwhile, Paolo here had to miss another day of work thanks to your client.”

Fred exhaled exasperation. “It’s a good offer. It’s much more than you’d get if this goes to court.”

Paolo leaned over his lawyer’s shoulder to glance at the paperwork. “How much is it?” he asked. He leaned in further almost pushing Ricardo aside.

Ricardo seemed aggravated but he quickly scanned the page. His eyes darted left to right until he hit the part of the page that warranted his attention. He paused and stared for a moment before he said, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“What? How much?” Paolo asked sounding like a kid whose parent wasn’t telling him something. Ricardo pointed at the amount on the page as he turned it toward Paolo. Fred could see the anger boil up in the big man. His face turned red and his eyes narrowed. “Fuck that!” he said as he looked at Fred.

“Mr. Gillian, there’s no way we’re accepting this offer. You must take us for fools.”

Paolo’s anger grew in intensity, but he seemed to struggle to find words to express it. He leaned into the table against his moaning gut and stared at Fred. His fists clenched. Fred heard his chair slide back against the carpet every so slightly.

“Mr. Montes, the accident was very minor. Paolo’s car wasn’t even totaled. He wasn’t even admitted to the hospital for his injuries. How can you possibly think you’ll get more in court.”

“I’ve missed a month and a half of work!” Paolo yelled.

Paolo threatened to bound from his chair, but Ricardo put his hand on his arm as if to calm him or restrain him in some way.

“Your client is immensely wealthy. This is chump change for him,” Ricardo said.

“My client’s wealth has nothing to do with what’s fair, Mr. Montes. That offer is more than reasonable given the circumstances.”

“Then, we’ll see you in court.” Ricardo stood up. When Paolo didn’t move, he tapped his back to get him to stand as well. Paolo kept his eyes on Fred, but Fred ignored him.

“Rachel will show you out,” Fred said to the men as he walked to the door of the conference room. Paolo maintained his angry stare and huffed as he walked past Fred into the waiting room. Rachel stood and greeted the men before she led them toward the exit. Fred shut the door and took the opposite direction toward this office.

He sighed as he returned to his desk. He hated dealing with the despicable personal injury lawyers. They gave other lawyers a bad name, especially when they sought big payouts for minor things. Fred knew Ricardo simply wanted a big payday for himself, but he also knew that his offer had been very fair. Any jury would see right through Ricardo and Paolo. He felt confident he’d win the case and that the men would receive far less than what he had just offered them. They’d regret their stance. He would make sure of it.

Push – Episode 3

Fred Gillian looked in the mirror and disliked what he saw. The young man he had always been had been replaced by an aging man with gray, receding hair, sagging jowls, and a spray of crow’s feet at the corner of his eyes. The soft, taut skin of his youth had roughened like sandpaper, and the glorious five o’clock shadow that had made him feel masculine in his youth troubled him with its patchy gray. He no longer sported a full beard because of the gray. On this morning, like every morning for the past ten years, he shaved his face clean in hopes of keeping himself youthful looking. It didn’t work.

He grabbed a towel from the rack near the sink and wiped the steam away from the mirror so that he could see to shave. The mirror cleared, but the steam gradually crept into his one visible spot. He cursed beneath his breath. He was going to be late for work. He pulled the razor up his neck clearing the hair in a sharp line and repeated several times until he nicked his neck.

“Oww! Fuck!”

“What’s wrong?” his wife asked from the bedroom just outside the door of the bathroom they shared. Her voice sounded concerned or bothered. He couldn’t tell which.

“I cut myself,” he said curtly.

“Oh.”

His wife of 30 years seemed not to care. She didn’t come to the bathroom to check on him, but he’d cut himself plenty of times, and by now, she was probably used to it. Nevertheless, something bothered him about it. Some deep-seated worry nagged at him like a sixth sense had detected something was wrong but he couldn’t quite put his finger on it. She had seemed aloof of late – a little less invested in him, a little less caring. Being together 30 years had blunted a lot of the charm in their relationship, but this felt different. Fred shook the thought from his head as he put a torn piece of toilet paper over his cut. How such a tiny nick could bleed so much, he had no idea.

He finished shaving and wiped his face clean with a hot cloth avoiding the covered cut as best he could. He dried his face as he walked into the bedroom. His wife stood near the window looking outside.

“It’s going to be a beautiful day,” she said without looking at him.

“It’s about time. I’m tired of the rain.”

Fred heard a noise downstairs and perked up. “Is Alan still here?”

His wife finally turned to him. Her tentative expression answered his question before she said anything. “Yes.”

“Why? He should be on the way to work by now. Do we still have to make sure he gets up for work? He’s 24 years old!”

“Fred…”

“Don’t ‘Fred’ me. What is he doing?”

“He’s not working.”

“What? What happened?”

“He was let go.”

“Let go? Why?”

“You know how he and that boss of  his didn’t get along.”

“So he was fired?”

“No. He quit.”

“He quit again? You just said he was let go. Why wasn’t I told this?”

“It just happened yesterday. I’m not sure if he was laid off or quit. He hasn’t said much about it.”

“You didn’t say anything to me last night. Why not, Shelly? You could have told me then rather than let me figure it out on my own. That boy can’t keep a job. He can’t live with us forever!”

Fred stomped out of the room before his wife could offer up any response. He picked up the pace to his anger as he stormed down the stairs. Shelly trailed behind him trying to get his attention and calm him down.

“Fred, give him a chance to explain…” she stuttered behind him. He ignored her, blocked out all of her pleading words. He’d had enough. His son had pushed him to his limits with his irresponsible and reckless behavior. He may be 24 years old, but he had somehow never made it past 16 mentally.

“Alan!” Fred yelled when he stepped into the living room and didn’t see his son. “Alan!”

“What?” his son replied. He stepped around the corner from the kitchen.

“What the hell happened to your job?”

“I quit.” Alan spoke defiantly, but Fred could see the fear in his eyes.

“Why? What happened?”

“I didn’t want to work there anymore.”

“That’s it? You’re just too lazy to work?”

“No, it was a crappy job, so I quit.”

“How many is that now? Eight? Nine?”

“I don’t know.”

“This is what happens when you go don’t go to college. You don’t have many choices. You have to take what you can get.”

“I know. You keep saying that. I know.”

Fred took a deep breath and clenched his jaw shut. His son was a monumental disappointment. His only child was going nowhere fast, and worse, he still depended on his parents for support.

“You’re going to have to move out. I’ll give you until the end of the month.”

“What? No. I have no place to go. I can’t afford rent anywhere.”

“Then, get a job fast because you’re going to need it,” he said as he turned to leave the room.

“Fred!” Shelly said as he stomped past her. “You can’t do that to your son!”

“Dad, wait!” Alan pleaded.

Fred ignored both of them as he bounded up the stairs. He could hear Shelly comforting their son. He could hear him reacting out of anger, his words unintelligible but clearly angry. Fred didn’t care. His son had threatened him before, but Shelly had stepped in and defused the situation. She had a hold on him that gave her extraordinary powers it seemed, but Fred had been pushed to his limits this time. Nothing she could do or say would change his mind. He was kicking his son out of the house, and he was changing the locks. It was time for him to grow up and move out. Fred was determined this time. He wouldn’t change his mind. Not like the last two times.

Birds on a Wire – Episode 10

I woke up in the bed that I had shared with Barbara for so many years. My head felt heavy, cloudy, and a wave of disappointment fluttered over me when I looked at the empty space beside me. The pillow sat unmolested, still round and puffy as if it had never once been used. I sat up and looked around the room rubbing the sleep from my eyes.

The blinds bowed under the intensity of the sun outside. The muted light seemed filtered and eerily fragile. Spots danced in my field of vision blocking a clear view of the room. Darkness hunched in the corners and I could barely discern if they were empty or if something lurked there. A chill ran down my spine as if I just realized someone or something watched me as I sat there on the side of my bed.,

“Hello,” I called out, my voice raspy and barely audible. My throat hurt and my mind spun in circles. I wanted to lay back down. No answer came to me. I sat there for moments longer, waiting.

I finally willed myself to stand up on my shaky legs. I wobbled like a strong wind had taken hold in my room, but I managed to stumble to the window. I braced myself on the window frame, stuck my thick fingers in between the blinds, and peered through the gap to the outside. A beautiful morning warmed my spirits, but the scene felt like one of those faded, old photographs that Barbara and I had in our photo albums we kept on the shelf in the living room. Something odd lurked beyond my window, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.

I shook my head and looked outside again hoping that my imagination had gotten the best of me. Nothing changed. The sunlight sparkled in an unnatural way. It reminded me of when I used to run among the bed sheets hanging on the clothesline as a kid – I could only see the world through the thin, white sheets.

Agitated, I turned away from the window and left the room. All of the blinds in the house were closed tightly keeping the light at bay. I could smell the hot vinyl of the blinds even though it didn’t feel that warm outside. My sense of smell surged like I had suddenly become more aware of the odors around me. The air I breathed felt cool and soft. I reached for my nose to touch the cannulas, but they were gone. I didn’t remember having them removed.

My gait felt unfettered, light, but I paid no heed to the strangeness of it all. I had some subconscious goal in mind; I just didn’t know what. When I walked into my living room, the door to the patio stood ajar. At first, concern flooded my mind. I swiveled around to see if someone else had come into the house.

“Carla? Rudy?” I said to the room.

I repeated myself, but no one answered. My heart raced in my chest. I didn’t feel alone anymore. I couldn’t see anyone, but I could feel a presence. The sensation startled me. My breathing increased. An old man like myself couldn’t defend himself much against an intruder.

I stepped toward the door and peered out onto my patio. The old bench that Barbara and I often sat on in the mornings and evenings when she was around stood empty at the back of the patio. The sight of the bench calmed me down, and I decided to take a seat there. I needed to be some place close to Barbara. Nothing would make me feel better.

Once I sat down, I did feel better. Birds chirped in the bushes. A bee whizzed by making the rounds among the roses in my backyard. The grass seemed greener than I remembered, but maybe the odd, sparkling light made it appear that way.

I glanced up at the power line that swung between the poles at the back of my house. The clean black line sat empty barely swaying in the breeze. I exhaled and relaxed. I only momentarily looked at the patio door, still ajar, to see if anyone had decided to join me. I no longer felt fearful. I felt happy, content.

I heard an excited chirping and turned to find the bird that sang so forcefully. A lone cardinal sat on the wire now, looking and chirping at me. I smiled. “It’s just you and me, buddy,” I said under my breath. The bird continued to sing, and I closed my eyes concentrating on his melodic song. The sun bathed my face in warmth, and the sweet smell of the roses swirled around me like the intoxicating perfume that Barbara often wore.

I opened my eyes ever so slightly and peered at the cardinal. It had been joined by another cardinal and they sang together side-by-side. I laughed to myself. My laughter belied pangs of loneliness. I missed Barbara.

“Jim, I knew I’d find you out here,” a voice interrupted me.

Startled, I turned quickly toward the patio door and saw Barbara standing there smiling at me and looking many years younger than she did the last time I had seen her. “Barbara…,” I said. I sat there with my mouth agape unable to form more words or get up from the bench.

She walked over to me and sat down beside me. She took my hand in hers. “I’ve missed you, Jim.”

I stammered as if I had seen a ghost, “I…missed…you, too.”

Her gaze moved to the cardinals sitting above us. She smiled and looked back at me. “I see the birds are back.”

I shook my head and gripped her hand harder. Her hand felt solid, real. I put my other hand to her face and rubbed her soft cheek. “Where have you been?” I asked.

“I’ve been here the whole time. I’ve always been with you.”

“Why did you leave?”

“I didn’t really leave you.”

Confused, I stopped talking. My hand dropped to her shoulder, and I leaned in to kiss her. Her warm lips felt familiar and inviting. This couldn’t be a dream. Maybe I had dreamed that she was gone.

“We should call the kids. They’re worried. They think you’re gone. I need to tell them it was all a misunderstanding.”

She shook her head and pulled my hand to her heart. “Jim, the kids will be okay. They know we’re together now.”

“How?”

“They know. Just sit back and enjoy the moment.” She dropped my hand to her side but still held it firmly in her grasp.

“Carla will be upset.”

“She’ll be fine eventually.”

“How do you know?”

She laughed and smiled at me. “Mothers always know.”

I didn’t understand it at all, but I didn’t want to question it. Barbara was back. I squeezed her hand and sat back against the bench. She scooted close to me and I felt the warmth of her thigh against mine. So many beautiful memories with Barbara flooded my mind rollicking in succession like a movie reel. We sat in silence watching and listening to the cardinals sing. Somehow I knew she would never leave me again.

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.