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 Leslie Doyle

REMEDIATIONS

 

 

Sometimes at night, when Paul can’t sleep, he’ll go outside and sit on the back steps. He’ll stare at the ground, wondering if he can see it glow, like phosphorescent plankton floating in some tropical sea. It still astounds Paul that someone, even back in the uninformed past, thought it was okay to take the cast-off piles of dirt and refuse from a factory which made glow-in-the-dark watches, and use it for landfill, under houses. He imagines a giant watch face beneath his feet, all of them living on top of it, silent hands turning around and around through the years, measuring out the hours lost, while the men and women and children above breathed the silent gases that gathered in their basements. 

He hears, as he sits there tonight, the fan in the basement click on, quietly ridding his home of any threats.

The house had come fairly cheap for this kind of town--educated, affluent, near the city. The people they bought from were obviously glad to get it sold. It was all above board, of course. The house’s history was brought out in the “full disclosure” documents. Anyway, the exhaust system would have given it away. Everything was certified safe, and monitors are in place, just to be sure. This has been repeated, over and over.

It seemed a paradise. They wouldn’t have been able to afford it otherwise. And they’re close to everything, New York a quick train ride away, great restaurants and culture all around them, and the schools, of course. And the neighbors, good neighbors—smart, aware people, people who had made the right moves, who ended up here like it was ordained. And the streetlights—you always knew when you had crossed into town when the lights went from harsh sodium vapor to the soft, inviting gaslight that spoke of another century, a more unsullied time.

Paul has spent his day hiding in the local library aimlessly surfing the internet, reading about anything but the markets. The library has turned out to be an excellent place to hang out—during the day, there is no one there but mothers or other caretakers bringing young children to story time, a few street people sleeping in chairs far enough from the front desk to avoid getting asked to leave, and the rest of the unemployed, who studiously avoid acknowledging each other’s existence.

He always stays until closing. The public address system’s thud is a signal to Paul. It’s not the words themselves, but that muffled knocking sound that the librarians produce as they prepare to start instructions for closing time. He hardly hears the directives anymore. The computers are being turned off.  Finish your copying.  Approach the desk to check out your materials. But the preceding sound as they fumble the microphone, reminds him of that noise when you try to listen through a stethoscope but you don’t know what you’re doing, burbly and wooden at the same time. Lacking the rhythm of a heartbeat. 

Today, though, was one of the library’s early closing days. And he’d decided he didn’t have the energy to find somewhere else to hole up until his normal homecoming hour. He’d have to tell Gina.

Tonight he watches something rustling in the overgrown flower garden along the back fence. He should weed and trim before it gets too tangled. 

It was hard to believe he hadn’t disclosed the truth to Gina yet, and that somehow she was buying the fiction that he still went into the city every day, boarding the train at the local station and getting paid for tying bows around malodorous packages of mortgages. For a while he continued to go into the city, disembarking at Penn Station each morning and finding a different place to pass the hours—the New York City Public Library, Bryant Park behind it where he watched the pigeons and the chess players, random Starbucks, then random bars.

The costs added up. 

These mornings, he puts on his suit and tie, picks up his briefcase, filled not with reports and prospective, but random print-outs from the internet that he never actually reads—analyses of the best fantasy football bargains, hurricane frequency projections, how to slow roast tomatoes—and heads to the library. Maybe, he thinks, Gina and he can drive to a farm market this weekend, buy bushels of tomatoes and learn how to can or freeze them. That would cut down on costs. He’ll have to research that tomorrow, print out some articles. He looks out at the back yard.  Maybe next year they can plant a vegetable garden. If they’re still living here.

Earlier tonight, he’d walked in after “work,” finding Gina home already, of course, as she always is. Her part-time job arranging publicity and fundraising at the local art museum always ended before the kids got home from after school activities—the perfect combination of a family-friendly and somewhat fulfilling occupation—at least that was what Paul has always assumed. It did not pay well, and that was fine. It did not provide insurance, and that was also fine. Or it had been, before. He’d looked at the papers given to him at his “severance” meeting and contemplated, briefly, the numbers. The forms to fill out sit in his briefcase. Also unread.

Paul figured if he didn’t start right into it, he’d chicken out again. And any day now, there’d be letters in the mail, letters that would alert Gina to just how big a deception he’d been playing. He put down his suitcase. The tie had come off ten minutes after he left the house this morning, though she would have assumed it was on the train ride home.

“Honey I’m home!” A little levity before he got serious.

  She looked up from her laptop perched on the kitchen counter. “Paul! Hi—you’re early…” Then, “Hey, this is great, let’s figure out some place to get dinner tonight. I’ve been working on the campaign for the new wing, and I haven’t had a chance to plan anything. Ben and Ella will be home soon.  We can actually do a family dinner out. I’m thinking maybe that new sushi place. It’s pricey but everyone at work loves it.”

Paul started to talk, but only got as far as “Gina, sure, whatever, but look,” before she went on. “So, Mahoney came by today, while I was unloading groceries. You know, he’s getting stranger and stranger. I worry about him.”

“Well, he’s always had a tendency to go on about stuff the rest of us on the block don’t know.   Geez, the guy must be eighty or ninety…hard to follow anything he says.” Paul was too ready to latch onto any subject besides the one he needed to broach. Gina nodded.

“I mean, I don’t think it’s Alzheimer’s or anything, though he’s certainly old enough for it. I think Betty should cut short her visit to the new great-grandchild and come back home. I was thinking of calling her, but I don’t know her granddaughter’s number. He just launches into these weird stories of way back. And he started talking about the remediation again. And boy, is that something I don’t need to think about.

“I mean, maybe it is Alzheimer’s—doesn’t that make people get stuck in the past?”

The twins came home just then, having met up after Ben’s cello lesson and Ella’s fencing practice, and the moment was gone. Instead of telling Gina the truth, Paul made up a barely coherent account of a terrorism drill gone wrong, alarms stuck on in the building. The noise was unbelievable, then some security guard had what they thought was some kind of heart thing, though it looks like maybe it was just a panic attack, and so Paul decided to leave early, bring home work. The whole thing had given him a headache, he added, though it lifted on the train ride home. He threw in an uncharged cell phone to explain why he hadn’t called.

“It was a bear of a day; I just wanted to get home.” Gina hugged him. He was amazed; the story was a hot mess, yet she’d bought it.

“Sorry Paul—so that’s what you were trying to tell me, and I’m rambling on about Mahoney and dinner.” Paul was conflicted—frustrated and relieved at the same time. He decided that on the whole, relief prevailed.  He’d bring it up later; time to move on.

 “So what else did Mahoney say, and where should we eat?”

 

On the street outside the restaurant they end up at, a sandwich shop in the next town whose main claim to fame is that it was where the last scene of The Sopranos was filmed, the sidewalks were pitted, and the streetlights are industrial dreary, not the quaint gaslights and cobblestones their own town is known for. Paul had lobbied for a cheap meal, knowing that his severance was running out, and the money would soon stop showing up when Gina checked the bank balance. At least this place had notoriety, if not sushi.

After parking at a nearby lot, they walked past a liquor store and a laundromat. Inside the restaurant, they passed through the old-fashioned candy store and ice cream parlor, then sat at one of the booths. A trompe l’oeil mural on the back wall has been painted to look as if one were gazing through a door, across the front porch and out to farm fields beyond. Paul imagined this is what the town looked like, maybe two hundred years ago. Before anything was buried.

On their way out of the house earlier, they had encountered their retired neighbor. He’d said hello to the family, then gestured at Ella.

  “She reminds me of my sister Mary, the one I started telling you about, Gina. Same spark. God rest her soul.” Ella looked up from her phone.

“You lost your sister, Mr. Mahoney?” 

“Long, long time ago, Ella. She was just nineteen, I guess that’s a bit older than you and your brother. I was only nine, but I remember her like she was right here.” 

“Wow. That sucks.” She’d stuffed her phone into her tiny, pink bag. “What happened?”  Paul cut her off.

“Don’t be nosy, Ella.” It annoyed him that Mahoney was ranting at one of his kids about the past.  This must be what Gina was talking about. Ella carried her indignation for most of the car ride. “He wanted to tell me, Dad.  That’s why he brought it up.” 

Gina had mouthed a see-this-is-what-I’m-taking-about when the kids weren’t looking.

At dinner, Ben was disappointed to find that the diner didn’t really have jukeboxes like on the show; he wanted to play Journey and pretend to get whacked. 

“It’s a stupid show anyway,” Ella said while picking at her salad.  Paul and Ben sing “Don’t Stop Believing” most of the way home, while Ella begged her mother to make them stop.  But Gina was looking out the car window, and the quaint gaslights alternately illuminated and shaded her face as they passed.

 

Now Paul sits outside, thinking about what he hadn’t said to Gina yet, thinking about the ground and its exhumed secrets.

Mahoney has talked about this in the past. He had lived through the remediation—the discoveries, the quandaries, the dissembling by government and corporate entities, then the clean-up—a neighborhood turned into a Superfund site. Earthmoving machines, chain-link fences with warning signs, houses jacked up while the dirt around them was excavated. Fights over what state would take their poisoned dirt.  Parks turned into “staging grounds.”  Mahoney’s kids were grown by then; it was past the time when upheaval would have changed anything that had already been set in motion, and it looked, so far, like his family had been spared the worst.  There were rumors around town of lung cancer, leukemia—nothing connectable, anything possible. Mahoney had elected to stay, and anyway, during remediation, who’d be crazy enough to buy a house here.

By the time Paul and Gina had started house hunting, it was finished. Everything was back in place. New trees planted, streets repaved, sidewalks wide and inviting. Gaslights installed and relit. They fell in love with the house, a country cottage that radiated “quaint.”  Getting the information after they made the offer had made them pause, but it was too late. They were smitten. He’d read it all, then signed the contract.

Again he sees rustling among the overgrown bushes in back. Then Ella is sitting down beside him. He hasn’t heard her come out. “Hi Dad,” she says, quietly. 

“I thought you were doing homework.”

“Done.”  She looks out across the yard. Her bike is leaning against the garage.  She stopped riding it midway through this past summer. “I decided to go for a walk.” 

“Did you tell your mother?” Ella has a disconcerting habit of disappearing.

“Nah, she thinks I’m watching Glee. She’s helping Ben with math, some stupid poster that’s supposed to help him envision algebra. Mine’s a wreck, but I’ll get an A on the test, so it’s all good.” She looks out toward the garden, attention caught by the branches shifting in the breeze. They sit a while, then she starts talking, all in a rush.

“So I looked it up. The neighborhood and the dirt, and the factory, and all. And the women who worked there. The Radium Girls. That’s what they were called. Mr. Mahoney’s sister was one of them, right?” Paul sighs. She’s a smart kid. Of course she’d figure it out.

“That stuff they used. To make the watches glow? You know what it was called? Undark. And you know what they did?  They’d lick the brushes to make them pointy, so they could paint the tiny numbers.” She’s looking at him in the darkness, tears welling.

“Dad—how could they not know?  It doesn’t make sense.” He reflects that in these times, when we think we know what’s in everything, when we lobby for labeling, and expectant mothers don’t touch alcohol, and smoking is a social faux pas, it’s hard to imagine a time when we knew less, when Thalidomide could be dispensed without a thought, and the Meadowlands his train crossed every day before he lost his job could be a dumping ground for the refuse of several cities and counties, because hey, it will all wash away, when pregnant women were urged to have a drink and a smoke to help them sleep. We think we know better now. We have full disclosure.

Ella is still talking, describing the horrors, the young women suffering from radium jaw, sometimes slandered as having syphilis to hide the truth and protect the company.  The deaths.  The fact that the refuse from that factory, in an industrial town miles from here, had been used as landfill when their houses had been built. Mahoney had been doubly cursed—his sister working in the factory, and then he himself living on top of the poisoned dirt. There’s nothing Paul can say to Ella. He pulls her close and hugs her, something she doesn’t usually allow. Then she pulls away.

“Dad. We shouldn’t have moved here.” She pauses, then gains momentum. 

“And you and Mom knew that.”

Paul wants to launch into a tirade on the life she has enjoyed, but he’s just so damned tired, his arms like lead, his face vacant of words.  In Ella’s voice, he hears metallic notes; he hears a shine of green; he hears the glow of outrage, shimmering with fear at the edges.

Ella storms expressively out of the yard, the sky dimming above her, a reef of cloud muffling any night sky lights.

  A dark form emerges from the dark bushes. A raccoon, eyes glinting, ambles over to the trash cans next to the garage. Plainly it hasn’t been disturbed by human commotion. Paul hears the vent system click off again. He should scare the raccoon away; he will have a mess to clean up tomorrow.

 

 “Tell me about your sister.”

They’re sitting in Mahoney’s back porch. Paul’s not certain what propelled him over here.  He’d say it was the click of the exhaust fan going on and off, ticking like a clock, but of course there’s no running away from it; Mahoney’s house ticks, too.

Mahoney hands him a beer. He hadn’t seemed surprised to find Paul at the screen door.  He tells Paul that with Betty away, visiting their daughter and the grandkids,  and now a great-grandkid,  it’s too quiet in the house to stay inside. And he doesn’t seem surprised by the request. Like he’s been waiting for someone to ask.

“Mary came home one day from the factory, in a giggly mood, refusing to say what was so funny.  The rest of us, Rob, the twins, me, Dora, couldn’t get it out of her. She kept smiling and then stopping, throughout supper. Ma thought she must have a new beau, but Mary said no.

“She kept looking out the window. It was set high up and you couldn’t see anything outside but the sky, so we couldn’t imagine what was so interesting.” He motions past Paul, toward the obscured sky. “And she kept fiddling with the lantern, both hands messing with it, even though it was shining just fine. It was a night like this, not rainy, but cloudy enough to make it dark, but real dark, the kind you’d have to drive far out into the country to see now.  Finally, when it’s really night, she takes Dora’s hand, motions to the rest of us to follow her out the door. And we all do.

“Then Mary’s holding her hands up to the sky and we see her fingertips, and they’re just glowing, shining like lightning bugs, and our mouths hang open, me and Dora’s especially, because our Mary, we can see, is doing magic. And she’s just laughing so hard, to bust a gut it seemed, on account of waiting all evening to show us the trick she’d gotten up to, painting her nails during lunch-time, waiting for dark to show us.

“She said all the girls were doing it. Her best pal Reenie couldn’t wait to walk out with her fella, her fingers all sparkly when she held his hand.”

He points down to the ground. “Whatever’s in there, it’s what’s left of what killed Mary.  My father tore himself up, blaming himself for sending Mary off to work in that factory, watching her jaw melt away, her teeth all gone, barely able to lift her head by the end.” He shook his head. “And Ma blamed him too.”

Paul sees the girl with the radiant fingernails, glowing against the darkened clouds. His own hands stuffed in jacket pockets, he nods. 

“Thanks. For telling me that story.” Mahoney nods back.

“I don’t, generally, tell it at all. But I think maybe it needs passing on.” And then he adds, “You know, you might consider telling your wife you lost your job.”

They sit, a while longer, over their beers. They talk about the Giants. Mahoney shows Paul pictures of his grandkids and the new baby. When Paul gets up to go, he finds Ella in the backyard, picking up the raccoon-strewn garbage.

Paul has a feeling that Mahoney knows where he’s been spending his days. 

And that he knows that Paul will keep returning to the library each morning, and stay each day, hiding at the farthest computer, pretending to look for jobs. Hopping around random websites, Paul will start to read an article about foundations and the ground beneath them. Some soil types, the article will say, are better than others. Sand, he will read, can actually be more stable than other kinds of earth when ground water rises. Clay or silt will start to flow after a rainstorm, undermining the foundation walls.  But the friction of sand will keep the ground more stable. 

How about that, he will reflect. I would’ve thought the opposite.

Then he will glance at his watch, note the time, and look up, listening intently for the fumbled thump of the PA system, waiting for some kind of instructions.

 

 

Leslie Doyle has lived in New Jersey all her life, which partly explains why writing stories that touch on environmental topics is important to her.  When not writing, she teaches composition, literature, and environmental studies at two nearby colleges. The rest of the time, she can usually be found biking, hiking or kayaking around New Jersey, anywhere from the Meadowlands to the Delaware Bay.

 

 

 

 

 

Tony Otten 

WHEELCHAIR

 

 

 

 As the fever wilted her, his helplessness made him grow more certain they could wait it out. After three days he knew they should’ve left. The snow climbed the house’s brick like an exotic lichen, a tide making its smooth rise in the nighttime and dawn, when sleep muted his reactions to the advance of white. Even after he was well awake, he was the kind who thought caution was a default for wisdom.

He couldn’t see much of the woods out there. His breath, which he tried to hold, made irritating kisses of fog on the window. The ice that sleeved the glass turned the outside into a crystal blur, anyway. On that third morning, when the snow stopped, he did crack open the window to see how bad things were, trying not to let in a draft on Dara, who lay dazed next to his knee jammed into the bedcovers. The house’s internal heat trembled against the tingle of cold that came in, a jellylike membrane between temperatures. He peeked out: white. A tsunami of powder came as high as the pine trees’ lower branches, propping up the birdhouses that hung there. The birdbath Dara had placed below them was a warty shape under the snow, like furniture covered with a sheet. Clouds scrolled by unconcerned, the color of watery eyes. He glimpsed their street sign. No more than a spatula’s length of it showed above the snow. Fieldstone Road, a solid, taciturn name he’d liked and convinced his wife to like. But he couldn’t make this predicament his fault that easily. Fevers came and let go as whims, indifferent to who’d bought what property.

He still felt guilty enough to shut the window quickly. Looking outside was a hazard of rural living, the way that lush inhuman emptiness could draw you into it. He laid the heel of his hand against her forehead, felt the absence of sweat, the heat, as if her brain were a pocket of ore deep underground. The time to leave was now, had been now for more than a day, beyond any realization or decision that belonged to him.

He stomped his feet into his boots and was searching for Dara’s coat in the closet when the power failed. This news didn’t come to him through a dramatic darkness, as none of the lights were on, but through the heat’s abrupt quiet, the ceiling vent going silent mid-whoosh. The last reassurance of civilization, the television, the microwave, everything the icicles on the power lines hadn’t denied him thus far, ghosted out of the house in a blink. He would’ve felt foolish panicking before now.

He fell on his back, next to her on the covers. “At least the stuff in the freezer’ll stay good,” he said, trying for a smile, hers or his own. Her eyes moved beneath the lids, a swim of muscle. Her frown deepened.

He found that coat and wrestled it on her body, like a puppeteer dressing his marionette. At certain times, like this, he wished they’d had a child when they were first married, a son. By now he’d be about fifteen, a boy nearly stronger than him, who, long after Elliot was gone, would remember his confidence, his inevitability, during days like this. To have someone young with him who’d reminisce about this moment decades later would’ve strengthened his conviction that his wife would turn out fine. But to have only Dara here, and have her sick at that, made him feel awfully temporary, mortal as a headline, man dies of frostbite trying to get wife to hospital.

He laced up Dara’s tennis shoes for her, damning his slothful wisdom, the flirty real estate agent that sold them the place—or sold him on it, rather—the city snow trucks that never came along these roads, the safety scissors in primary school that gave him an affection for rounded edges. Nothing sharp, nothing straight, no hard angles or corners.

He pulled a heavy sweater over her nightclothes. Her cheeks glowed like distant fireworks. “…somewhere?” she mumbled.

He nudged his hip against her. “What’s that, Dee?”

She didn’t answer. “I’m taking you to St. Pete’s,” he said.

“Why?” That was distinct.

“The nuns said you look like prime recruit material.”

He left her in the bedroom and ventured outside to broom the snow off his pickup. For once he was grateful for the local geography—their house rested on an incline that kept most of the kamikaze flakes from finding the truck’s windshield. As he worked, scrubbing and sweeping, the air wrapped his head like cold silk, gradually roughening to cotton as the wind strengthened. The breeze chafed his ears, which were slightly too long and tapering to stay under the flaps of his fleece cap. He picked off the door’s seal of ice with the broom handle and climbed inside, his pants spattered with slush to the knees. When he twisted the key, the engine chugged awake. He shifted it into reverse and leaned on the gas. The wheels juddered. Then he heard the frictional scream that told him they wouldn’t move. He pushed the door open and watched the tires as he pressed the pedal. The rubber indentations spun like mad roulettes with each tap. They broke through the epidermis of snow, spitting up wads of mud on the cherry paint, but the truck only shuddered, and oozed deeper into the ruts.

Elliot sat back against the upholstery, too tense to swear at something inanimate, as he usually could. He stared at the picket fence, its gray, peeling teeth sunk into a snow bank. His stomach throbbed. He was not a mechanic. He knew how to fill the thing with gas and he could sign a check to buy a new one if his savings would cover it and he could call the tow man but God knows if the guy would come out this far.

He abandoned the truck and strode up to the garage with the desperate concentration of someone who has no purpose in mind. He’d heard spinning a car’s tires could ignite them somehow, or the grass, though a fire didn’t sound terrible right now.

Nothing existed in the house that could even mimic transportation. No sled, no toboggan. If they’d had kids that might’ve been different. Dara, he remembered, had pointed out some machine at a yard sale once, a Polaris snowmobile, but he hadn’t wanted to keep that hulk in storage. Let a St. Bernard come for them if a blizzard ever got that bad. He unlatched the garage’s door and delved among the dusty monoliths draped in sheets, rocking chairs, paint cans, croquet mallets. A dusting of spider limbs powdered his boots when he knocked up against one of the shelves. He kicked the mess off, and his foot connected with a folded contraption of metal and leather. With his toe a spark of pain in his boot, he bent and dragged the object from its niche, leaving a wake in the floor’s patina of dust. A wheelchair. Not one he or Dara had brought with them. He pulled it to a clearing in the junk and unfolded it. Rust clotted the joints. The coolness of its grainy steel shocked his fingers, even through his cowhide gloves. The seat was hardly wide enough for a child. In fact, it had probably been intended for one. The house had belonged to a farmer’s elderly wife who died the previous year and left it to the weeds and the bank. Perhaps she was just a small woman, frail. But he’d heard from the realtor she lost a child early in life. Her youth would’ve been in the forties. The era of polio. Twisted knees and jigsaw bones flashed through his mind. His intestines clenched.

He lifted the wheelchair out of the junk and shut the garage. The old thing must’ve been left from the prior owner, but who knew what purpose it served? Maybe the kid had broken a leg and needed it for a couple weeks. Elliot himself had been unable to walk for a few days when he was young and suffered growing pains so enormous they seemed bigger than his body, seismic waves beating his ligaments. He didn’t know why he was letting these sentimental worries nag at him, anyway. He rolled the wheelchair up to the house, hurried into the bedroom, and half carried Dara out, thankful their house was a single floor. He didn’t have the muscles he imagined a mechanic would have. Her breath was coffee vapor in his ear, sweet with the scent of her toothpaste. The bulk of her hair lounged on his shoulder like a rolled-up rug.

He stopped to snug a cap down on her head. “Can’t believe I’m doing this to you.”

She said nothing. Her breath whited the air fitfully. He set her in the wheelchair, trying not to let her head loll. She fit in the child’s seat.

More than the urgency of her health, the thought of her voice pushed him, a terse, lively command. She would have been—would be—a mother with a hand of gentle iron, with an inflexibility he rarely bothered to muster. Dara lived in a solid way he did not, lead-veined, stubborn, but somehow accepting of odd measures like this. He only did what he believed she would.

The journey up the road was not the Arctic crossing he anticipated. The slush caved before the wheelchair like a pile of smashed ice cubes, with the occasional jolt from the ancient tracks of another car. The frost clad the branches in an alchemy of wood and water, overlaid with tapestries of snow. Out of a clearing sky, the sun warmed him within his chrysalis of coat and cap and scarves. Discomfort only came after an hour or so, when they reached the highway into town. His hands ached with the cold, blood trapped in his fingertips. His legs seemed robotic climbing over the last, exhaust-blackened ridge of snow. The ice creaked wearily underfoot.

A man in a dust-battered Camry slushed to the road’s shoulder and asked if they’d care for a ride, as Elliot expected. Unlike their last home, this was a town where people stopped. “Thanks,” he said, his tongue clumsy. It felt parched, cured from wind and sun. Dara groaned as he pulled her by her shoulders into the man’s backseat, then folded the wheelchair and stuffed it between them. He thought the extravagant heat blasting from the car’s vents would wake her, or the bulge of the cushions, but she only frowned again, in thought, as if the change in environment was only reflected in her dreams. “Going past St. Pete’s?” Elliot asked.

“Will be. Grocery’s that way.”

“Hurry. If you can, I mean.”

The car shushed back into the empty lane. “Yep. I see she’s pale.”

Elliot looked into the rearview mirror, saw the man’s gaze wandering over Dara’s face. “That the flu?” the man asked.

“I’d say so.”

“Is she…disabled-like? I seen you with that wheelchair. Why I stopped.”

Elliot shook his head. “I just got it from the garage because my truck got stuck. It belonged to the house’s last family, I think.”

“I might know the name.” The car’s eye-crinkling heat amplified the man’s odor—bubble gum and hair tonic, and a primeval scent of theater popcorn.

Elliot noticed the car was slowing as the driver waited for an answer. “Name was Decoursey,” he told him.

The car sped back up. The man inhaled with pleasure, his cheeks gilled out like the sides of a puffer fish. “Now I recall him, sure. Course it was his wife you got the house from, probably, she survived him. Little wheelchair like that, looks like it would’ve been for their boy. He come down with something a good while back and passed away. Poor little lamb.” He seemed to chew the sinew of his cheek. He was an amply fleshed man wearing bifocals that tottered on the bridge of his nose with each backwards glance, but never slipped down.

“They found the cure for it,” he went on. “Only four-five odd years after that.”

“Polio,” Elliot said. He snaked his arm around Dara’s shoulder and cradled her head against his collarbone.

“Yes.” The driver seemed surprised he knew. “Not all the kids who caught that died. Guess some boys just didn’t have the constitution to shake it.”

“No, I reckon not.” Elliot tucked the wheelchair closer against his leg as if it still held the boy’s body in it. A body with batwing shoulder blades and a gray smile. He felt a parental protectiveness for this imagined boy that was his, that was him. He watched the bleached meadows of snow glide past.

The driver apparently understood how his words had been perceived. He reached his hand back over the seat. “Earl Hightower. My older brother died of the same thing, year fore I was born.”

Elliot could do nothing but shake with him. Hightower’s nails were soft pink shells at the ends of driftwood fingers, bitten and filed smooth again. He regretted his sharpness. “Grocery, you said? That wouldn’t be Paulson’s?”

“Only one in town.”

“I’m one of the clerks there.”

“Why aren’t you there now?”

Elliot saw a frown wrinkle Hightower’s forehead. “Vacation.”

“I heard they got rid of one.”

Elliot pressed his hand to the window. The glass iced his palm. “That’s true.”

“I just heard they’re looking for a new one on account of the last one was sneaking people coupons all the time.”

Elliot’s throat shrank. He felt porous, like a rotted sheet on the laundry line. He looked down, his heart clapping weakly. He felt sick with the car’s storm of smells after the purity of cold air. “You haven’t told her yet?” Hightower said. “Have you?”

“I was going to.” His hands, he saw, were steady. “I was gonna wait a couple days. Then she got sick. And the storm. We had to wait it out.”

“Shame.” Hightower said it bluntly, and Elliot didn’t know how he meant the word.

“Pull over,” he told the driver. “We’re good from here.”

Hightower’s gaze flattened. “Hospital’s another mile. I’m headed right past.”

“Stop,” Elliot said tremulously. “We don’t need your pity.”

The man sighed. “If this is about…” But he skated to a halt at the shoulder anyway. A sliver of uncovered sidewalk gleamed up through the coating of ice. Elliot unpacked himself, then the wheelchair, and finally Dara. He looked up to give Hightower a belated thanks, but no sooner had he situated Dara in the seat and swung the door shut than the Camry heaved off the invisible curb and gunned away. He said his gratitude to a fender mustached with icicles.

Dara shifted in her seat, but didn’t wake, if her unwholesome daze could be called sleep. He touched a finger to her forehead to check her warmth, then remembered he was wearing gloves. Instead of stopping to pull one off, he grinded the wheelchair up the lane, the hospital an unseen promise. He felt like a wound with its dressing torn, vulnerable now without the unconscious shelter of the car. He wanted to curse his pride but that wasn’t the issue. It was inertia, the pull of things and people. Once he started to say or do something he couldn’t resist going along. But that was probably as good a thing as it was bad.

Eventually another car pulled over, a Civic. The hair of the woman behind the wheel was tangled and white as the fuzz on an ear of corn. She had a generous voice that didn’t match the uncertainty of her smile. “You in a pickle?”

He gave her his name in case she recognized it. She didn’t. He told her his truck had broken down and his wife had a fever, and he wouldn’t mind a lift to the hospital for her. “Only got the one other seat,” the woman said.

“I can run. I’ll catch up.”

She gave him a quizzical look, her lips pressed, then motioned him over to the passenger side. He opened the door, blinking in the sparkle from the windshield. Balancing Dara against his shoulder, he collapsed the wheelchair and lifted it awkwardly to the woman’s extended hand. “You look awful tired to be somebody’s angel,” the woman said, and winked. His smile strained the skin around his mouth. He slid his hands under Dara’s arms. Something uncoiled in him at the woman’s words, at his wife’s face, the unknowingness in both of them.

He hauled Dara into the seat. “I’ll run,” he said again, and stepped back.

“Hold you to it.” The woman reached across and yanked the door shut, and the Civic pulled away. He sprinted after it, nearly keeping up before the car shrank into the distance. He felt the shape of the wind against his muscles and beneath his arms and in him, a wraith that found substance in running.

 

 

Anthony Otten has published work in The Louisville Review, the Rusty Nail, and Short Story America, among others. He works and studies at Thomas More College in Crestview Hills, Kentucky.