This story dates from 1996, with revisions done in 1998. I wanted to write about grief and its lingering effects on the people left behind. The title comes from the myth of Tantalus, who could smell the fruit but never taste it.
My dad, Allison thought as she took the Corvette off of cruise control, is a philosopher. Not a Descartes or a Machiavelli. More like a Will Rodgers, a man who studies every day life and finds meaning in it. If she’d had a penny stock for all the times her dad had said, You get what you pay for and pay for what you get, and don’t believe anything you hear and only half of what you see, she could have paid off the car twice over.
Allison left the interstate at the Smoky Mountains exit and was heading up the winding roads to Townsend when she noticed that something was not quite right. Fall had always been her favorite season. Crisp air. Burning leaves gathered with clattering rakes that swooped and scraped the ground. Bags full of bright yellows and reds like blood drops from dogwoods or multi-colored pin oaks or orange maples. But that Fall, the leaves ignored the pageantry and turned from green to ugly brown without so much as an afterthought and lay at the bottoms of the naked trees.
She punched the accelerator and the Corvette cut around a hairpin turn. The valley rolled out below her and she kept to the road and refused to look down. Between Gatlinburg and Townsend, she watched for her parents’ inn. She knew her Mom would be cooking her apples and a hundred bushel baskets would be lining the mud room out back. The kitchen would be sweating apple cider and apple butter and apple this and apple that.
Allison smelled the apples even as she pulled into the driveway of the inn, a hunting lodge her parents had transformed into a bed and breakfast. She carried her bags to the porch.
“Welcome to the Great Smokies,” Mom’s trusting voice came through the transom and when she opened the door, the scent of cooking apples tumbled past her.
“Ally!” Mom opened her arms. “I thought you’d never get here.”
“Whoa, you’re giving me the Heimlich.”
Allison stepped back and shifted the bags to keep her balance at the top of the stairs. Her mom danced after her as Allison twisted away and held the suitcase between them. When her mom finally caught up, she hugged her as hard as she could, giving three quick pats between the shoulder blades, a Dad-hug.
“It’s so good to have you home, Ally.”
She touched her daughter’s face with cinnamon-stained hands that cradled the chin in their flavor. The hands drew away but they held onto an unseen stem that connected them. Her hands abruptly smiled with her voice, “How was the drive?”
“Fine. Can I get in the door now?”
“You got here fast.”
“After what you told me on the phone, what did you expect?.”
Mom picked up the bags.
“Those are too heavy for you. Let me do it.”
“Nonsense.” She disappeared into the house with the bags. Her voice became an echo. “Hooper will be happy you’re home.”
“I wish I were,” she whispered. Allison lingered at the threshold like a drop of cider on the rim of a wide-mouthed jar, almost ringing the bell to let her Dad know he had company.
“Coming?” Mom’s voice came from the fourth step, her face barely above the mahogany baluster as she held the bags and waited for her daughter before she would climb up to the top.
“Let me get in the door first. Hey, you got a new rug. My, we are coming up in the world.”
“Just something to spice up the place. You like it?”
If her mother had seen the way Allison chewed on her bottom lip, she would have known her daughter was lying when she said, “It’s beautiful. It’s good to mix things up a little.”
“Glad to hear it. I know how much you hate things to change.”
“I don’t hate change,” she whispered. “I just hate it when you’re the one who changes things.”
She followed her mom to the first room on the right.
“We thought the blue was perkier than the lavender. What do you think?” Mom said.
Allison said nothing and looked out the window at her car parked in the gravel drive. I’d give anything to be heading back to Charlotte in that thing, she thought.
“Are you listening, Ally?”
“No harm in that.” Mom fixed the bed and firmed up the pillows. She stood beside her daughter and tied back the drapes. “Isn’t the sunshine beautiful?” Then she put the bags on two luggage stands pulled from the closet.
“I’m getting the royal treatment here.”
“Nothing’s too good for my girl.” She turned down the quilt. “Why don’t you get a little rest? You must be worn out from your trip. Kick off your shoes and stay awhile.”
Allison turned away from the window. “Mom, how could you? That’s your canned phrase for guests. What am I, a tourist?”
“Nonsense. And if you keep making that face, it’s going to freeze there, and you’ll be stuck with it, and what would all of your boyfriends say about that?”
“Fine. Be that way. Make snide comments like you always do.”
Her mom clutched a pillow to her stomach and let go of the pillow case that she had held open with her teeth.“Why are you so defensive? Did I say something about your relationships?”
“There. You did it again.”
From down the hall, Allison heard her father cough. She put a hand on her mother and passed without speaking. Her mother grabbed the hand to hold her there. She slipped free with ease.
“I’m going to see my Daddy.”
“No, I haven’t told you enough. Don’t go in there.”
They swept into the master suite. Beside the window that leaked sunshine into the room, in a bed of cold metal, a tube in his nose from an oxygen machine beside him, Allison’s dad slept covered by a hand-sewn quilt and a brilliant blanket of light. Fresh-shaven, his dentures out and his chin almost touching his nose, he looked like one of the wax heads in Gatlinburg, except he wasn’t moving, even mechanically, and no canned words came out of his mouth. Just the sound of a rattle when he inhaled and the smooth hum and click of the air machine reminded them that he was still alive.
Allison backed into the hall. Her whisper was as sharp as a paring knife. “He looks awful. Why did you let me go in there?”
She ran to her bed and dropped onto it. Her mom stroked her hair and kissed her head and Allison could smell the nutmeg in the apron.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t want it to be like this.”
“Allison?” Her Dad called from down the hall. His voice was a rattle. “Is that you?”
“He’s calling me.”
“Stay here.” Mom went to shut his door. “No, Allison’s not here yet, dear. Would you like a drink of something?”
After she had tended to him, Allison’s mom led her daughter by the hand to the round oak table in the far corner of the kitchen, where they sat down with some hot cider.
Allison took one look at the cinnamon stick in the cup. “Can I have some coffee please?”
“Think I’ve lost my taste for cider.”
“One coffee coming up.”
She sighed and served the coffee black in an oversized stoneware mug that Allison drank from quickly, though the coffee was too hot for her taste. Then she remembered last night when she had answered the phone and heard Mom’s voice and knew something was wrong. Except for the cat curled up in her lap and the half-empty bottle of Chardonney on the night stand, she was alone. Then the phone rang with Mom’s ring and the cat jumped onto the night stand and Chardonney spewed everywhere.
“Is everything all right Allison? You sound upset.”
Allison told her she was fine while she blotted the rug with a sock, swept the stand clean, and wiped her hands on the cat. “And to what did I owe this pleasure.”
“I don’t know how to say this, Ally, so I just will. Your Dad is sick. He has cancer.”
Cancer, she had thought, what kind of cancer, how do you know this? Why didn’t you tell me sooner, you’re crazy, he’ll be all right, he’s going to die, why me, why me? “What did you say. Mom?”
“Cancer,” she’d said, “Lung cancer. It’s spread to his brain. The doctor says it’s stage four already.”
“Stage four? What’s stage four? What happens at stage five?”
Behind her Mom’s voice, she had heard pots clanging in the kitchen. Mom was busy canning, putting up apple butter in wide-mouthed mason jars clattering in the submersed pot racks. “There is no stage five, dear.”
And then Allison didn’t hear the pots clanging and she didn’t feel the wet rug or the cat purring. And she didn’t feel or think anything when she had called in to work after packing and then driven to see her daddy and to prove to herself that he was really sick.
Now at the oak table, the mug cradled in her hands, she repeated, “There is no stage five, dear.”
“What did you say, Ally?”
“There is no stage five, that’s what you said last night.”
“Yes, I might have.”
Mom set out a head of iceberg lettuce, some cold cuts, and the loaf of Roman Meal she always stored in the fridge to keep it fresh. ““You don’t look so good. You really should lie down.” She cut into the ripe tomato with a paring knife then quartered it.
“Look, Mom, I’m a little rusty on the small talk, so let’s quit dancing around this.”
“Would you like a sandwich?”
“Mom! Listen to me.”
She rinsed the knife before putting it in the drainer. “Fine.”
She brought herself and her sandwich to the table. “Fine. We’ll talk about this. And when I say something you don’t like, you will not walk out on me and you will not run to your father for comfort because he can’t comfort you now. Okay?”
Allison nodded so she wouldn’t have to talk. She didn’t like the sound of her voice when she was angry. It broke like cracked ice and she sounded like child.
“You know how he’s been hurting. We thought it was that fall he took last Spring when was pruning, but the pain kept on and just got worse. Finally he went to the doctor and they found this tumor, well these tumors in his lungs and shoulder. Even his brain. I don’t know how he stood it.”
“That’s terrible. How long have you known?”
“A week or so.”
“A week?” said Allison, “You’ve known for a week? What took you so long to call?”
“You know your father. He didn’t want to worry you.”
“I’m not lying to you.”
“I know that Mom. Worrying’s the last thing on my mind. I just can’t stand to think he’s hurt for so long.”
“Well, thank heaven for small favors there. They gave him morphine as soon as they found out. Now he wears this patch on his back that doses him. He sleeps most of the time, but he does have delusions sometimes.”
“What kind of delusions?.”
“About working on Army trucks mostly. He’s dropped my transmission twice this week.”
Allison laughed and took the empty cup to refill it and then stood by the window to watch the birds at the feeder, sparrows mostly, then a small cardinal and his mate, even smaller and pale against his lively red plumage. They cracked sunflowers seeds together, piling the hulls higher, eating in unison. A blue jay swept onto the feeder to chase the cardinals away. He pranced around the feeder with his beak working, scattering the hulls, picking around for a few spare seeds. He shrieked delight then flew away to a nearby tree where he could keep watch.
“Excuse me?” Mom said from the sink where she rinsed her dishes before setting them in the strainer.
“Talking to this blue jay out here. He’s an asshole. He won’t let anybody else eat, but he’s not hungry himself.”
“That’s a blue jay for you.”
“Why do you put out seed if you know he’s going to hoard it?”
Her mom sighed. “So how long are you staying?”
“Don’t know. It depends.”
Allison let her breath out in measured doses. Always wanting to pin me down, aren’t you, she thought. “I’ll stay as long as it takes or until I’m in the way.”
“Good, it will give us time to talk. By the way, I’ve got some things the hospice doctor brought.”
“Hospice? Surely he doesn’t need those people. They take care of terminal cases.”
“True.” She passed some papers to Allison. “These might help you understand better. I know they did me a world of good.”
Allison read the first line of a pamphlet. “The death of a hospice patient is not an emergency? Then what the Hell is it, a cause for celebration?” She threw the papers on the table. “Excuse me, Mom. Got to use the little girl’s room.”
When she’d gone upstairs and used the bathroom, Allison walked down the hall and knocked softly on her dad’s door.
“Dad? Still asleep?”
He didn’t answer, so she tip-toed in. Seated beside him, Allison put his hand in hers and felt the palms and the veins on the back. They were not cold and she could catch the pulse in them by simply rubbing the backs and listening with her fingers as the blood filled the vessels again. She leaned back in the rocking chair and still feeling the pulse knew he wasn’t dying. His heart was good. But his nails had yellowed from nicotine, the tips grown thick and uneven and his fingers were white, even on the palm side where the white began to grow up the length of his arm, underneath the loose shirt that covered the empty hull of his chest.
“So what do you have to say for yourself?” she said.
His eyes deep in the sockets did not open. The skin on his face was blemished as if it had been bruised by the breathing tube that had worn groves into his cheeks. When she moved the tube aside, she could see the sores scabbing over. The twitch of the line woke him, his hand going to the tube and expertly working it deeper into his nostrils.
“Dad, are you in there?”
She waved her hand over his face and his eyes popped open. He snatched her wrist with one hand and her thumb with the other.
“She’s a little out of alignment here, Ray.”
His left hand a socket wrench, her thumb the engine part, he ratcheted her into place and tightened her bolts, then laid her repaired hand down on the comforter. She giggled before she realized that he was not playing a game but that he was back in Korea underneath a Dusseldorf. His hands searched the air between them until she offered her hand again, but then she withdrew it when he tried to fix it.
“Tell McArthur to stick that in his corn cob pipe and smoke it.”
“Daddy? What’s wrong?”
She put her head up on the comforter that had been hand-stitched from scraps swapped by her mother for a case of apple butter. On the dresser at the foot of the bed she saw the box made of teak that her dad had brought back from Korea. Inside it was a ragged wallet stuffed with receipts and notes and four pieces of hard candy.
No one would mind if she sneaked a candy but she unwrapped it quietly so as not to wake her father who she thought had settled down to sleep again. But the candy was sour apple and she spit it out into her hand.
“Yuck. I hate sour.” She rattled the candy wrapper at him as she bent over the bed. “Did you spike these with something?”
When he reached for her hair, she expected him to adjust her ears, maybe set their timing but he just twisted the ends in his fingers and patted her three times.
“So,” his voice a wind through the dry leaves, “what do you have to say for yourself, getting into my stash?”
“Hey there, stranger. How you doing?”
The smile he mustered lasted until he moved in the bed. “Been better.” Veins spread like branches across his cheeks. He nodded at the candy wrapper. “See you found my surprise.”
“Boy howdy, did I ever. That candy isn’t sour, is it.”
His laugh made him gag. The cough rattled his chest. He sat up heaving. “Napkin.”
She panicked for the box of tissues then practically shoved a handful of them against his mouth. A long stream of phlegm followed the Kleenex away from the mouth when he cleaned himself. He collapsed onto the bed, drinking oxygen from the tube like a straw in water. He pushed the tissues into her lap. She jerked away and threw them on the floor on her way to the bathroom sink where she washed her hands. She heard him over the water.
“Do I make you sick or something? Do I? Get out then, if that’s how you feel.”
“I’m sorry, Daddy,” she called to him and sounded as blanched as her hands under the hot water. “I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings.”
As she watched from the bathroom, his hands fluttered to his face and probed for the tube, reset it, then perched on his brow, tugging the wrinkles on his forehead.
“Time for my medicine,” he said.
She shook her hands dry as she went to him, at the same time measuring his mood and the distance between them so that she could catch hold of his ruffled hands before she spoke.
“What’s wrong? What did I do?”
“Time for my medicine. You deaf, soldier? Boy, you better get a move on.”
In the room’s fading light she let go of her father when she found she had no strength to hold him still. He pick-picked at his eyebrows. His arms made a cross on his chest that spastically rose and dropped, then he grasped his shoulders and started to moan. No words were formed by his voice that sounded like a low wind in the foothills.
“Dad? Dad?” She shook him to no response. “Mom!”
To keep herself from running she didn’t kick off her shoes until she got to the landing where she scurried down the steps barefoot.
Get a grip, she thought, don’t let her see you panicked. “Mom?”
Allison’s voice found her Mom in the kitchen. She peeked around the stoves, wiping sticky hands in the apron tied around her thin waist. Her smile fell when she saw her daughter’s face.
“He says he needs his medicine.”
“Thought you were going to the bathroom.”
“I made a little detour.”
Mom ran a glass of water from the sink then she drew medicine into a needleless syringe. “This is for his nerves. Is he anxious?”
“Kind of. He threw a snotty tissue on me and I freaked.”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“What was I supposed to do with a napkin full of snot?”
“Throw it away?” Her mom poured a glass from the bottle of sherry she kept behind the Saltines can. “Don’t worry about your father. He’s just not himself.”
“Hospice prescribed the sherry??”
She couldn’t help smiling after she’d drained the glass. “That’s for my nerves, dear. Be back shortly.”
“Shouldn’t he be in the hospital?”
“What good would that do him? He wants to be at home with his trees and his old house and his family. You know how he feels about hospitals.”
“But where is he going for treatment?”
“It’s too late for treatment, Ally. I thought I’d told you that.”
“That’s ridiculous. Why aren’t you doing anything? How can you sit back and let him die? Don’t you love him?”
Her mom stepped around her. “Don’t say another word.”
She watched her mom leave. Reluctantly, she stayed in the big galley kitchen with its two stoves and sinks and punch-metal cabinet doors hiding pots and jars with their patterns of holes shaped like apples. Mom had cut back on the canning but usually the counters were lined with mason jars sterilized in a water-bath and the screw lids would be stacked everywhere in their square boxes.
“This is pissing me off. She expects me to stay here and do nothing and not say anything. Just be a good little girl and shut up.” She stalked to the front door and got her coat from the pegboard. “Forget that. I’m out of here.”
The keys were in the ignition and she had turned on the car. It idled in the drive and she cursed and turned on the radio loud. She looked up at the house and into the window where her mom was holding a cup for her dad to drink from. She turned the car off and went back inside to the kitchen and she threw her coat on the floor.
“So much for that idea. I can’t stand this. First chance I get, I’m heading back to Charlotte. I will not stay here and watch him go.”
Her mom cam in with an empty cup. She looked at the coat. “Going somewhere?”
Allison slapped the table. “I can’t believe this is happening. Not to my daddy.”
Her mother went to her and held her as much as she could as long as she could until Allison regained control. It was a long time before they spoke again, well into the dinner that Mom cooked while Allison drank coffee and thumbed through the phone book absentmindedly.
After dinner was finished and her mom stayed to wash dishes, Allison dressed for bed and took a book with her upstairs to Dad’s room. She sat down and turned on the lamp. He was still sleeping when she noticed how red his skin was and leaned down to check his temperature. She felt his forehead then his neck. His hands were just as hot.
“Mom!” She called down the stairs. “Dad’s burning up. Where’s your thermometer?”
Her mom brushed past her on the way to the bathroom where she got the thermometer out of a box in the medicine cabinet.
“How hot is he?” Allison said.
“Hundred and two and climbing.”
“What’s the hospice doctor’s number?”
“It’s the orange label on the handset.” The thermometer beeped. “One hundred three point four.”
The number dialed, Allison sat on the edge of the rocking chair and waited for the nurse on the other end to answer, while her mother dabbed at his face with a damp washcloth and pulled back the comforter to give him more air. His body was like a sack of bones and he reminded Allison of the pictures of the survivors of the Nazi Deathmarches. She had to give the phone to her mother when they answered. She could not talk.
When Mom finished with phone, she said, “they’ll be here in a couple of hours.”
“A couple of hours? Is that a joke?”
“They have other patients.”
“And I’ve got only one daddy. Give me that phone. I’m calling an ambulance.”
“You shouldn’t do that. Your father won’t like it.”
“I don’t really care what you say he wants.” She dialed for an ambulance and gave the address. “Now we’ll see what some real doctors can do.”
“He’s not leaving this house.”
In thirty minutes the Rural-Metro ambulance pulled into the drive and the paramedics were led by Allison to her father’s room. Her mother smiled and greeted them.
“He’s got a high temperature and he’s got cancer,” Allison told them when they asked questions. “He’s needs to be in the hospital.”
A blue-shirted paramedic checked her dad’s breathing and the other wrote down the information in a metal notebook.
“Some rattle in his chest,” said the examiner.
“He has pneumonia,” said Mom. “You all shouldn’t have come. Hospice will be here soon.” She slipped by the paramedic and straightened her husband’s bedding.
“Is hospice responsible for his care?” said the writer.
“No,” said Allison, “they’re not doing a damn thing for him but letting him die. Take him to the hospital so they can do something for him. Now! What are you waiting around for?”
The blue-shirt said, “we can’t transport except in an emergency.”
“What do you call this?”
Her dad woke coughing. He sucked the line for air and sat half up. Mom held tissues to his mouth. Allison caught the men exchanging nods and said, “Dad, the ambulance is here to get you.”
He shook his head and that made him cough until he was bent over. Mom rubbed his back.
“Ask hospice for a suction device when they come,” the writer said. “It’s better than tissues.”
Her father caught his breath and after looking at his daughter, waved the men away. “I ain’t going to no goddamn hospital. Y’all get the Hell out of my house. Didn’t nobody here call y’all.”
“Your daughter did, sir.”
With unsteady hands he pushed the tube into his nose and turned way toward the window and he breathed in the oxygen like it was water and his thirst could not be quenched.
They packed their things. “There’s not much we can do for him. Sorry.”
“I know,” said Mom.
Allison waited until they were on their way downstairs before she rushed after them. She pulled her coat on over her night gown and slipped on a pair of the galoshes. On the porch she yanked the coat of the blue-shirted man. “Where are you going? Get back up there and do your job.”
“Ma’am, your father’s a cancer patient. We don’t deal with that kind.”
“So you only do car wrecks? Do you know how stupid you sound?”
The writer stayed on the porch and signaled the other man to go. “I know your hurting. I lost my mama awhile ago, and that was hard because there wasn’t anything I could do for her, even when she got so bad she screamed for morphine. And Hell, I’m trained to deal with this. Why don’t you just wait for the hospice people?”
“Get away from me. Get your useless ass off the property.”
She watched the ambulance drive away. After a few minutes of pacing the porch, she was calm enough and cold enough to go back in. The door was locked. She reached for the buzzer twice and wanted to beat on the door but she felt ridiculous being stuck outside in her nightgown so she zipped her coat and snapped the collar tight around her ears and over her mouth. Her hands nested in the deep pockets, she left the porch and walked around the house to check the back door.
Behind the mud room on the small back porch, bushel baskets were stacked five high. There must have been a hundred. Allison looked at the back door, then at her father’s orchard. She stepped down off the porch. Beyond her the path turned to packed dirt and branched away in all directions. Leaves covered the paths and she kicked them aside as she walked. The apple trees swayed like rickety dancers too stiff to move and she hunkered into her coat to hide from the wind.
When she was six, her father had rolled her around out here in her birthday wagon. The workers were stripping the trees clean and her dad piled the wagon full of her favorite Granny Smith’s. The stomachache she got from them taught her to hate anything sour.
Another time, her dad fixed up a haunted forest for Halloween and she and her friends screamed and laughed at the dummies hanging in the trees. She herself had almost peed in her pants when her dad dressed up like a skeleton chased them back to the house, kids scattering like loose pebbles.
And when she was fifteen and in love for the first time, her boyfriend carved their initials on a pine sapling on the back row of the windbreak her dad had planted. Now she searched for that tree. It had grown steadily along with the other pines towering over the orchard that had once dwarfed them. At eye level, where a blemish exposed the pine’s heart wood, she found her initials, misshapen but still beside the boy’s. She tried to picture the boy as the man he’d become and saw nothing more than the silly grin full of braces that had cut her lip when they kissed. She moved on to the right side of the orchard. The house was beside her, though far away, and she watched it in the distance on her way to the old caretaker’s cottage.
Now she lifted the unlocked hasp and pushed the door open. The lights till worked. The tools the workers used to maintain the orchard were stacked on racks in the front room and the floor was stained with mud and cluttered with twigs and leaves and needles that made a path to the kitchen. An electric coffee pot and a small microwave had been left on the counter. She used to play house here when she was little and serve her dad play tea. When she was older, she helped her mom feed the workmen here and kept the coffee pot full. Her dad taught her to like coffee and to light the kerosene heaters they warmed their hands on. Back then the cottage was full of life and work, but now it seemed lazy and empty and the heaters were no longer burning. She sat in the middle of the kitchen floor and watched the lines in the linoleum as the day ended and night came on.
When her rump was too cold to ignore, she grabbed at the fixture and the light rolled back and forth across the empty room. Then she caught the bare bulb and put it out. She left the cottage and pulled the door to, shoved a dead branch into the hasp to hold it closed.
Her father never locked the cottage, even though there was a hasp on it. Many days, they’d stand together at the door to watch the workers in the trees or carrying their ladders or climbing down them, their bags full of picked fruit. Then they would pour them into the bins where they’d be sorted out for market. The blemished ones were culled out for her mom to use.
One day all of this will be yours, little girl, her dad would say and open in his arms as if the orchard were a kingdom.
“What I never told you, Daddy, is that I didn’t want it. Never did, even back when this was one big playground.”
When she’d taken a few scuffling steps from the cottage, she stopped. The trees looked dead and the leaves were gone, and the fruit the trees had borne was long gone, probably being spread on somebody’s toast somewhere.
This is all useless, she thought, he worked his whole life to build this place and now he’s dying. What a waste. The trees didn’t care about him, either. They would bloom next spring without him and somebody would rent a neighbor’s bees to pollinate the crop and the fruit would grow and mature without him, and somebody would be hired to do the picking and the pruning and every little nuance that he’d perfected would be done by someone else. He had raised this orchard from nothing, and now it didn’t need him. What a shame he couldn’t see that.
Then for some unknown reason, she thought of the first time she’d helped rake up the Fall leaves and how her dad had let her jump into them headfirst and how she’d come out laughing. Her dad leaned on the rake and watched smiling as she scattered the pile in all directions. Now, she smiled herself and turned in her tracks and to go back to the cottage to get a rake.
The night was clear and she could see well enough to find the ground. In a clearing nearby she gathered a mountain of leaves into a huge pile. She took a running start and jumped in feet first.
“Ow!” She grabbed her rump and rolled on the ground. “Either I’m fatter or these leaves aren’t as cushy as they used to be.”
After she had gathered up more and stacked them high above her head, she belly-flopped and shrieked. Leaves filled up her mouth so that she came out spitting and laughing.
“More leaves. Got to make it higher.”
The pile grew. Each time she dived in, she became more manic and each time she came out giggling like a little girl. She was sweating now and she pulled off her coat. In her gown and galoshes she ran around the pile and sang, her hot breath visible in the wind that cut through to her skin.
“One more time!”
She went in head first. A stick at the bottom scraped her cheek and she shrieked and rolled out from under the bottom. Fragments of leaves decorated her hair along with the twigs and gumballs that stuck to the gown. She found no blood on her cheek but winced from the salty touch.
“Ouch! Good move, dumbass.”
Her first temptation was to call for her mother but she knew she could never explain all the leaves on her night gown.
“She’ll just fuss and tell me I’ll catch my death of cold.”
On the way back to the house, her knees started to ache and she realized her arms and legs were criss-crossed with scratches. Her tail-bone hurt, a left-over from the first jump. The cheek quit hurting but now her faced itched. She left the coat open though the wind was blowing harder and cussed herself for being so careless, so childish.
As she left the orchard, she had no more thoughts and no more memories and her fingers had no feeling. The path returned her to the porch and the empty baskets. The back door was unlocked. She shed her coat in the mud rood, leaving it in a heap on the wood floor, and slipped off the galoshes. Barefooted, she went to wash her face.
From the kitchen she heard water running and thought she heard her mom crying. When she came up behind her at the sink and saw the shoulders start to shake, she knew Mom was at the end of her rope.
“What’s the matter? Did the hospice people show?”
Her mom sniffled and wiped her nose. “They did, but they.…”
“They, um, said there wasn’t much they could do for him. He might not make it through the night.”
Allison turned off the water and timidly caressed her mom’s shoulders. She wanted to cry too, but she held on and did not let go until her mom turned the water back on to finish the dishes.
After awhile, Allison said, “Is that cloves I smell?”
“That mulling spices?”
Allison said, “I don’t like cider, you know.”
“Care for something to drink?”
From a drawer beside the stoves, Mom took out a paper envelope and shook it as if it were a sugar packet and emptied it into two mugs then ladled out the cider from a simmering pot, filling each cup three-quarters full. They carried the mugs to the table.
“You have leaves in your hair.”
“Really? How about that.”
Her mom looked skeptical but said nothing more about it. Allison sampled the cider, the mulling spices overpowering the sublime apple flavor: cloves, stronger than in the cigarettes she used to sneak into the barn and smoke. She could feel the rush after a few sips. “Whew, that’s some strong stuff. Your recipe?”
“Store bought. I know, I can’t believe it either. This little place in Gatlinburg puts it out.”
“I’m sorry, Mom. I shouldn’t have run my mouth.”
“We have to do what we have to do. Oh, listen to me. I sound like your father.” She made herself smile. “At least you stayed.”
“Yeah. Thank heaven for small favors.”
They both laughed and drank enough to have seconds. The cider and the cloves made Allison feel warmer inside and by the time she thought about her missed supper, she was ready to eat forever.
“I saved you out some food, if you want it.”
Allison took the dinner to her dad’s room. She ate and read a book and watched him and then slept some. After midnight the fever broke. He woke up with his face and hair sweaty. She squeaked by reflex when he tickled her feet.
“You got a towel I could use?” he said.
“Sure thing.” From the bathroom she brought back a hand towel dipped in cool water and wrung dry that she used to wipe his face, hair and hands.
“It’ll do in a pinch.”
“How you feeling?”
He patted the tube in his nose. “Still here. You got anything I could sip on?”
“More in mind for some Coke. Where’s your mama?”
“Sleeping. I’ll get you some Coke.”
On the way she knocked and eased open the door where her mom lay in bed pulled into a ball underneath the covers, her pillow lost somewhere on the floor.
“Mom, wake up.”
“Dammit, Hooper. Let me sleep. This isn’t the Army.”
The static electricity made her thin gray hair stand straight up when Allison yanked the covers off of her head. “I thought you were your father.”
“Let me see.”
She pulled on a housecoat and Allison went downstairs. When she came back with a cup and a straw, her dad was in fresh pajamas.
“Lift your rump,” Mom said as she yanked off the old sheets and balled them up for the hamper then unfolded a clean one.
Allison offered the Coke. He shook his head at the cup and showed her his shaky hands. Instead he opened his mouth to take a sip from the straw. She set the cup on the table beside him among the prescription bottles.
“Mom, let me help you with that.”
The four corners of the fitted sheet were already pulled tight and they spread the cover sheet under him.
“Rump,” Mom said then they tucked in the bottom and made hospital corners that would be the envy of nurse. Allison changed the wet pillowcase.
“Nothing better than a clean bed when you’ve been sick,” Mom said.
“Y’all go on to bed,” Dad said in a few minutes. “I’m okay. Go on.”
“You sure?” said Mom, but he was beginning to drift off. “I guess so. You want me to stay with him awhile?”
Allison led her to the guest room. “I’ll be fine. Get some sleep.”
With them both taken care of, Allison settled in beside the bed on a moon-less night with the clouds hiding the sky. She could see nothing out the window, now that dark had come but she knew how the tops of the trees heavy with leaves, swayed like dancers in the mountain winds that swept down on them at night. She turned on the reading lamp, tucked her feet under to keep them warm and settled in to read.
Within a hour her dad stirred from his sleep. He was covered with sweat.
“You’re burning up again. I’m going to get Mom.” .
“Don’t go. Just sit there.” He shielded his eyes from the lamplight.
“Do you want me to turn this out?”
“Leave it on.”
“Do you want me to get Mom?”
He grabbed her by the wrist. “Don’t leave me.”
“It’s okay, Dad. The antibiotics will kick the pneumonia. You’ll be fine.”
Though she heard her voice in the room, she didn’t feel herself talking and she put the book down to offer him some Coke. He took the straw but he choked and started a coughing jag that left him red-faced and bent over the rail. Blood leaked from the corners of his mouth. With a napkin she wiped phlegm and a lump of matter out of his mouth and then swabbed it with a small sponge.
“Can’t swallow.” His voice was a rasp.
“It’s okay, Dad.”
Allison pressed a washcloth to his forehead and he lay back in the bed fiddling with his oxygen tube as she washed his neck and the backs of his hands. The mixture on the machine was turned up to give him more air. His hands shook and his eyes turned wild for a few minutes until the richer air calmed him.
“I’m here. I’ll be beside you all night.”
“You aren’t going to run out on me?”
“I’m not going anywhere, except here with you.”
“You promise? If you go I might not be here when you get back.”
“I promise I won’t go anywhere.”
“There’s apples that ain’t been picked. They’re rotting out there. You take care of it?”
“I promise that, too.”
“Good, now I can get some rest.”
He closed his eyes. His breathing became regular and in a minute he was asleep. She read for awhile, every few seconds checking his breathing, until she fell asleep too and she had no dreams. Her rest was as dark as the night.
Sometime after four she heard the bed springs creak. She saw her dad sitting on the edge of the bed, his hands pushing on the mattress where he had gathered his breathing tube into a loop in his hand. He’d slid one slipper on. His foot searched for the other slipper in the dark.
“Where are you going?”
“I’m so tired.” His voice shook like a window locked against a hurricane. “I have to lie down.”
“But you are lying down.”
She pulled him back into bed and comforted him by rubbing his neck but she felt the sharp points of his bones and had to stop. He let her tuck his legs into the covers and spread the quilt on top of him.
“Where are you going?” he said.
“Nowhere now. Charlotte sometime in the future.”
“You need to stay here. Have to take care of your mama.”
“What are you talking about?”
“It’s time to cut me loose. Can I go now?”
“You’re not going anywhere. You’re right here with me.”
“No. I want to lie down. The door is open. Can I go in?”
“I don’t know what you mean, Dad. Let me get Mom.”
His hand clamped onto her wrist. The grip had no strength in it. “Don’t leave me. Don’t you see the light? Can I go in?”
She heard the wind blow past the window. Somewhere outside in the darkness, she imagined the trees had reached for their fallen leaves that laughed and swirled away.
Let him go, she thought, don’t hold him here if he needs to leave.
He smiled when she kissed him and said “You go on Dad. Mom and I will be okay.” His mouth formed words without sound. Then he slept. His daughter watched him for a very long time then turned out the lamp, and watched him in the darkness until she fell asleep again in the rocking chair.
In the morning, Allison woke with a sore back and the thought that’d she’d been dreaming. Her dad was asleep and breathed irregularly but he was not gone. After she pulled on her housecoat, she checked on her mom and went downstairs to make them both a pot of coffee. While it was brewing, she went outside to get the morning paper. A few cars passed on the highway in front of the inn. Her own car needed a wash before she started back to Charlotte. probably tomorrow or at most the next day. Today, she felt no urgency to leave, not until he was feeling better. She stepped back inside, expecting to hear her mom rustling around in the kitchen or at least the beep of her alarm clock. But the smell of breakfast, ham and eggs and toast cooking, was not there and now even the scent of the apples had faded. The house was still.
Allison did not know why she slipped off her house shoes before climbing the stairs, though she sensed a need to be as still and quiet as the house.
“Are you up here?”
A small noise came from her dad’s room, not like the hum of respirator nor like any wind. She found her mother beside the bed smiling and crying. Allison followed her nod.
His eyes were open wide and his hands at his sides. Mom had taken the tube away. The light of day shone on his face mottled red and yellow. Then Allison heard the machine not running and she felt a taste in her mouth like mulling spices, strong and sweet and bitter still. He had opened a door that smelled of light and entered mumbling, his eyes and mouth wide and nostrils flared.
“He’s gone?” said Allison.
Her mother’s eyes were red-rimmed and they held each other, and Allison wanted not to look at her father, but she could not stop until she looked out the window and past the orchard and into the mountains and the clouds that rose over it.
“I feel like a weight’s been lifted off my shoulders,” she heard her mom say from very far away.
She knew it was true. And though she could see the orchard outside the window, without her father, she felt like a falling leaf being swept up and cut loose with nothing between her and the sky.
Copyright 2009 by David Macinnis Gill. All rights print and electronic reserved.