This is a chapter from a novel in progress. ©2020 Patti Witten, all rights reserved
This is an excerpt of a novel in progress.
After the meeting, Robert drove to the hospital again. The fury he’d felt two days before was gone. Remembering that day 20 years ago with Jessica and Maylin, and hearing that young man talk about forgiveness had shaken him. Phil was somehow connected to his guilt and Robert longed for a confrontation.
Visiting hours ended at 9 p.m., so he didn’t have a lot of time to do whatever he was doing. He parked and sat in the truck with the window down, and this time he noticed the dusk, the daytime birds going to roost in the trees and the night insects winding up. After a moment he raised the window and climbed down from the cab, forcing the key into the right front pocket of his jeans. It struck him how easy it was to open the door, step onto the pavement, and to walk wherever he wanted to when Maylin did not get out. But he pushed that thought away. He was going to see her murderer.
The hospital’s wide automatic doors whooshed open for him, and he stepped into the quiet, tastefully lit lobby. The woman behind the curved prow of the information desk did not look up as he approached, but a uniformed security guard standing against the wall gazed at him. Robert leaned one arm on the tall counter. The woman glanced up. “Can I help you?” He took a breath and asked for Phil’s room number. She looked it up and told him, reminding him that visiting hours ended at 9. Walking down the corridor, he felt naked, empty-handed, and chilled by the air conditioning in his stained T-shirt, work boots, and ill-fitting jeans. He was conscious of how his belt cut into his belly and the click of arthritis in his left knee. Maybe he thought of these things because of how young Phil really was, because Maylin and Phil were young, together.
The elevator took him up to a smaller lobby with a few chairs and artificial plants where a sign pointed to the hallway with Phil’s room number. An elderly couple passed him, then he passed a group of works stations corralled behind a waist-high wall where doctors and nurses talked and typed, their faces lit by blue screens. Then Robert was at the door. He hung back and listened for voices, but it was quiet. He bobbed around the door casing to take a look, then stepped in, ducking slightly like a servant or a soldier. Phil lay with his eyes closed under a light blanket in the high hospital bed, wearing a pale blue hospital gown. He had a black eye, his beard had grown out, and his hair was unwashed. One arm was wrapped in a bulky bandage from fingers to elbow. His other arm was bare, scratched, and bruised, and an IV tube was taped to the back of his hand. He looked thin and pale, and the fluorescent light behind his head threw shadows on his face. Robert knocked lightly on the doorframe.
Phil wondered if he was dreaming when he saw Robert standing there. A little bubble of fear expanded in his chest, but nothing came of it. When he’d thought about it, Phil had anxiously imagined Robert would come at him. But now he wasn’t afraid. Surprisingly, he did not feel much at all. It was just poor old Robert, looking at him the way he always did.
“Can I come in?” Robert asked.
Phil blinked. “Yeah, come in,” he said, almost lifting his good hand.
Robert slowly walked the three or four steps to the bedside. He was nervous and did not want to stand too close or move too quickly. “I came to see if you’re OK.”
A buzzing sound startled him until he realized that it came from the hospital bed. Phil’s upper body rose with the bed, and he looked at Robert with glassy eyes and the slack expression of narcotics. Robert turned to sit in the reclining chair just behind him. Phil remained quiet and motionless, but Robert’s breathing was quick, his heart was thumping, and his hands were icy cold on the arms of the chair.
He forced himself to talk, to keep it simple. “I’m sorry this happened,” Robert said. “Just — sorry.” It was so hard to say only the words he should say and not the other things — his questions, his anger, his grief. They looked at each other in silence.
Phil blinked, licked his lips and said, “I’m sorry, too.” It sounded lame, but he meant it. His mind was empty, but in a way that made it easier to focus on just this moment and not try to guess what Robert was thinking. The nightmare scenes of the accident that sometimes overcame him stayed hidden. This was good in case his thoughts traveled through the air like a virus and became visible to Robert — because who knew? Maybe they could. Robert looked old and exhausted with deep creases in his face. His shoulders were low and rounded, and he leaned forward in the chair with hands clasped in a surrendering way, like he was praying.
“Are you OK?” Phil asked him, surprising himself.
Something broke inside Robert in a way that he did not know he could break. His breath caught as he swallowed a sob, then he gave up and wept silently, shoulders shaking. He hid his face in his arms, bent over his knees. In a moment, he had it under control. He inhaled deeply and let it out in a long, ragged sigh. Then he looked up.
Phil looked stricken and afraid. He returned Robert’s wide-eyed look. All at once, Robert wanted to laugh. He smiled crookedly and said to Phil, “You look terrible, man.” And Phil laughed, too. Neither of them spoke for a few moments. Then Robert stood up, nodded, and left.
Driving home, he leaned into the wind and listened to the truck’s low-pitched hum, a Tuvan throat song that harmonized with the rise and fall of insects in the ditches and hovering woods. The night air was warm and humid. This time, when he got home, he would tell Cynthia about his visit with Phil, and he would tell about her the feelings he’d had during the meeting. He wanted to be let back into her heart.
Suddenly a deer flashed at the side of the road ahead and leaped in front of the truck. Robert slammed on the brakes and missed it by inches. The truck idled at an angle in the middle of the dark road, headlights staring. Robert’s hands shook. He rested his forehead on the steering wheel and wept again, surprised that there was more inside him. Crying was painful — it was a terrible pressure in his head and a sensation of nakedness that made his skin itch with fear. Now that he had let it out, he was afraid it would never stop, and it would carry him to the end of the world. One part of his mind thought this is defeat. This is a surrender I never knew I could feel. But after a few minutes, it passed. He pulled up the hem of his T-shirt to wipe his face.
Crickets sang their stream of consciousness from every direction. An eggshell moon stood above the tree line on the eastern horizon. Out there in the dark along a hedgerow, the deer zig-zagged on its impossibly thin legs, its wide, liquid brown eyes alert for the kind of danger it could understand, with just two strategies to face it — run, or keep perfectly still.
© Patti Witten, all rights reserved
You Boys Be Good
He was climbing up the makeshift ladder to the stand when he fell. Everything was fine up to then. He was still pissed at Robert, but it didn’t matter because he’d gotten geared up, he was ready, and his good mood was restored by more beer and weed.
The ladder was made of six-inch wide pieces of salvaged wood siding nailed to the trunk of a pine tree. The tree stand was also made of salvaged lumber and plywood. It was on land that his friend Mike’s family leased for hunting. Phil and Mike had helped Mike’s uncle build it, which had been harder and more work than he’d expected.
Hand over hand, one foot, next foot. But he missed a beat in the pattern and went backward into the snow, falling on the rifle slung across his back.
He lay there for a while, catching his breath and looking straight up at the stupid tree. It was mostly dead, the dark broken branches sticking out like spears. The sky was a uniform white. He was still warm from walking in, but if he didn’t get up he knew he’d get cold pretty quick from the shock of the fall and from the snow. He experimented, raised his arms. Muscles convulsed between his shoulder blades. Then he tried rolling onto his side, intending to free the rifle digging into his back.
The pain flared. It hurt. A lot. Fuck. He could not even start to sit up, much less stand. He carefully removed a glove and fished his phone out of a pocket, and thank god there was a signal. He called Mike.
“You’re alive. What happened,” Mike said.
“You wouldn’t believe it. I fell. I was climbing and I think one of the slats broke. I fell like twenty feet.”
“What, did you break your leg?”
“My back hurts like a motherfucker. I can’t walk out. Can you come get me?” Mike sighed, agreed, and ended the call.
An hour later the doe appeared. Phil was really cold and it was getting dark when she stamped and snorted. He turned his head slowly and watched her, his cheek freezing against the icy snow. The doe’s head was low and her breath smoked in the cold air. He could smell her. Then he heard the buzz of Mike’s ATV and she disappeared.
The only good thing about this — two good things — he would get time off from work and he would get Percocet. Already he looked forward to the warm nothingness he would be feeling in a few hours. It was such a relief that, unbelievably, he started to cry.
Old friends, old enemies
Phil was dreaming — speedometer, clock, RPM. His arms and legs would not move. Teeth scratched at his hand and he was filled with a wild fear, pushed against something dense and heavy that was dragging him down. Don’t look at the light, baby. Close your eyes hard, roll them all the way up. Count and sing. We are the sultans, the sultans of swing.
He opened his eyes, his heart thumping, and he knew instantly that once again he was on his back in a hospital bed.
Unlike the other times Phil had awakened to find himself in the hospital, this time he was full of despair. The room had that slippery quality of nighttime. Light spilled into the open door from a hallway and a far-away voice buzzed quietly. A monitor beeped behind his head, out of sight. The scratchy pinch on the back of his hand was an IV needle. The rest was a maze of dread.
A female nurse in pink scrubs came through the door trailing a breeze that wafted over his face. She reached over his head. A fluorescent light came on and the beeping stopped. She turned his right wrist to time his pulse.
“Were you dreaming, honey? Are you awake now? How’s your pain? On a scale of one to ten, ten being the worst pain you’ve ever felt.”
Phil tried to answer but coughed instead. It hurt.
Here were his old familiar companions — pain and the hospital. He watched the nurse as she lowered his right hand and closed it around a thumb button attached to a cord. “Press this if you have too much pain. Can you do it? It’s a medication pump. You have a catheter so don’t try to get up. Do you understand?”
She held a plastic cup and a straw for him. The straw reminded him of something just beyond recall and discovered that his bottom lip was swollen and would not obey him. He had a question and looked at her over the cup.
“You’re OK, you were in an accident,” she said. “You have to stay in bed now.”
He dropped the straw from his lips. “I know,” he croaked. “What time is it?” Then, “What’s wrong with me?”
“Your left arm is fractured, and your pelvis. Your right knee is sprained and you have a lot of cuts and bruises. But you’re going to be OK. It’s very early now, go back to sleep if you can. The doctor will see you in the morning.”
The nurse straightened and pointed at a whiteboard on the wall next to the bed. “That’s me, I’m Becky. Oh, let me change the date because it’s tomorrow.”
With her back to Phil, she pulled the top off a marker with a pop, and the felt tip squeaked on the board. “I’ll be back,” Becky said over her shoulder and left the room in a puff of wind.
Sunday, August 19, 2018. Because it’s tomorrow. Phil tried to work it out. It meant almost nothing, or not quite something. He looked at his left arm wrapped in an ace bandage over thick padding. A light blanket covered his hips and legs. When he shifted experimentally the pain took his breath away. He found the pump in his right hand and pushed the button with his thumb. Then he pushed it again in case it didn’t work the first time.
Pain and the hospital — old friends, old enemies. The pain was an expanding balloon that carried off his mind like a trailing string. There was no room in his body for more questions.
This is an excerpt from a novel in progress.
When we were girls in the early 1970s, my two sisters and I were lucky, so lucky. We lived in Connecticut, in a historic rambling brick and clapboard colonial home painted white with black shutters in the deep woods. Small brown bats slept behind the shutters during the day and a long green sweep of lawn and gardens led to a pond guarded by weeping willows and bullfrogs. It was heaven.
But the luckiest way that we were lucky was to have a horse. Nightmare was a sturdy, glossy, black mare with some draft horse in her unremarkable pedigree. She tolerated everything we did to her, from fawning on her to climbing and jumping from her back to pushing through brambles, to pulling her thick mane and braiding it with brightly colored yarn, to bathing her with blue Dawn detergent under cold water from the hose.
We kept Nightie at a nearby riding stable. She was so sturdy that unlike the touchy thoroughbreds I would ride as an adult, Nightie was never injured, except for one oozing wound of proud flesh on her right hind ankle that didn’t heal for the longest time. Still, we watched the other girls treating their more sophisticated horses with fascinating ointments and liniments for sore muscles and pulled tendons, and we also applied these lotions to Nightie’s legs and practiced bandaging them snugly but not tightly with cotton fleece and wide wraps, even though she did not need them. Such a patient horse.
The liniment everyone used was an alcohol, menthol and who-knows-what concoction that tingled when you tipped it into your hand from the brown glass bottle and rubbed it down her cannon bones and hocks and down the straight-as-saplings tendons at the back of Nightie’s lower legs. We pronounced it ab-zore-bean. Decades later when I mentioned it to other grown-up horsewomen, they laughed and corrected me. The proper pronunciation was ab-zore-bean, they said.
But I still say it the old way in my mind.
Bringing In The Hay
It’s late July, the grass is above average tall, and if it ever stops raining the farmers will get a lot of hay in.
My neighbors to the north have a small farm. They are a young family who’ve grown up in the life of farming here in Dryden. Dana and Carol were high school sweethearts and now they are in their early thirties with three small children. Dana wants to have steers on his 80 acres—in fact, he wants to buy some of the adjoining 600—but that’s still on the wish list. For now, Dana hays the open fields every summer like he did with his father growing up. This summer he has a couple of horses in the fenced pasture closest to his house, the one where he kept a steer a few years ago. They’re here because another neighbor’s horses ate all the grass at her place, plus she broke her arm, so Dana stepped in. He’s been hauling water for them in a 100-gallon utility tank tied to a small trailer behind his four-wheeler, pumping it by hand into a trough.
Nine days ago, three-and-a-half inches of rain fell in just 45 minutes. The deluge caused major flash flooding in parts of the county. I had water in my basement, not from creek overflow but because the sump pumps could not keep up and the ground was already saturated. Last year, we had a 100-year drought. Seven months of far below average rainfall, from late spring through the fall. This year, corn and soybean rotted in the fields. The horses drink from a new pond that has filled a low spot in their pasture.
Three days ago, Dana mowed the field closest to my house with his twenty-year-old tractor. That’s not a bad age for a John Deere, having replaced a truly ancient one the year before. But since then Dana has been struggling to get the hay in before another round of thunderstorms and flood warnings. He started baling yesterday but every few minutes I heard the tractor motor drop to an idle because of some problem. He didn’t get very far, and despite the near-perfect weather, the tractor went silent well before sunset. This morning help arrived.
With Dana driving and the helper walking behind the baler hitched behind the tractor, they got it all done. Dana’s bales were a bit wonky, a little crazy-shaped. Some were curved into wide letter Us. Others were twisted like square slinky toys. I listened to them work from the top of a ladder where I was cleaning the gutters until I was chased down by hornets. I was stung three times and ran around the side of the house where I examined the welts on my arm and legs and watched the heavy blue thunderheads piled in the western sky. The wind switched and turned cold as inflow rushed to meet them.
At about four that afternoon, Dana and his two older kids worked fast to bring in the bales before the evening thunderstorms. They buzzed around the field loading 6-8 bales in the 4-wheeler’s trailer (minus water tank), ran them to the hay wagon, loaded the bales on the hay wagon, then rushed back to the field for more bales — wash, rinse, repeat. According to the weather radar, the storms heading our way were slow moving but intense, running in a line from southwest to northeast, from Corning to Ithaca. At 7 p.m. the dark sky was pierced by lightning and frequent thunder. The four-wheeler buzzed and voices shouted until the rain began.
My stomach was a twist of anxiety about these approaching storms, for a different reason. On my weather app, I looked at the huge clots of orange and red rain cores, trying to gauge if/when the deluge would hit. I had to do some talking to myself and slow breathing to calm down. I thought about the recent flood, knowing all too well that if we lost power the sump pump would not run. To prepare, I moved the cat’s litter box and the dehumidifier to what passes for high ground down there. There wasn’t anything else to move that hadn’t already been ruined in the previous flood. I ran the worst case scenario and felt my gut twist.
So I thought instead about Dana and his family. About the bales of hay in danger of being soaked and ruined, become worthless due to mold, making all that work for nothing. What must it be like to desire a farming life these days, even if it’s just a small place to raise your kids and keep goats and chickens? Maybe a few steers? Day jobs must fill the void. Everything must be deferred in favor of the farm and equipment, including needed renovations to the house, vacations away, new vehicles. Three kids under 12, the youngest less than a year old.
The storm caught up to us but fortunately just a glancing blow. No prolonged, drenching rain, no flood, no loss of power. Other people had flooded basements, ruined hay, no power, and stress. But not me, not this time.
Now it is near dusk and a cool breeze is pushing the storm south and east, away to other towns, other farms. I hope they got the hay in and under cover. I hope there won’t be more storms tonight. I hope we can adjust to the new normal of weather extremes and enjoy this beautiful part of the world while it still resembles what we grew up with.
Meanwhile, I’m watching the next line of storms heading this way in a line stretching from Detroit to Toronto. Sunset is lighting up the back of that storm line in the east with a diffuse, pink glow that slides into orange and golden yellow as I watch. A rainbow stretches up to the base of the cloud and receding rain so that all you see are two curved pillars touching the earth and a dome of color suspended between. Lightning arcs beneath it.
Sometimes the drama is behind you. Sometimes it is ahead.
© 2017 Patti Witten
Photos © Patti Witten | more photos at sway2this.com
How can it help to speak of the heart?
Tell me about the horses
Their language of meaningful gestures
Hooves stirring the hay
At night in the dark silent barn
How can it help to speak of the world?
Tell me about the sunrise
The adorable wars of sparrows
Their street-fair circus reunions
Vise-like grip in the thunderstorm
How can it help to speak of the truth?
Tell me about the river
through forest, plain, and desert
to the salty mouth of the sea
over the silty tongues of giants
How can it help to speak of love?
Tell me about the garden
Blooms that nod or stretch or crawl
Arrived for the attention of sunshine
Stoic or showy, brave or discreet
In the brief heat of summer before the rain
How can it help to speak anymore?
Tell me about your drawing
A monster, a building, a hand-holding child
My head is a hostel for metaphors
And faithless memories, like as like not
So a bird is a baby, a touch is a star
Bits of the whole are ciphers for all
Arrayed in a brilliant expanding web
Connecting the beginning with what
Has no end
©2017 Patti Witten
photo / Patti Witten
The house across the street is deserted. A modern attractive home set back from the road, it’s on a large, open lot in a neighborhood of modest homes that have nearly all been built over the past fifteen years on what used to be farmland. The home is always dark, always empty, except for one or two weeks every summer.
The owner, Monica, is a thin, tough woman in her forties or early fifties. She lived there with two or three Australian Shepherd dogs until 4 years ago. Her dogs always barked at me as I left the house, and when I returned. They barked when I mowed the lawn, or puttered around the garden. They barked until Monica hollered at them, her voice cracking with strain. The barking always resumed a few minutes later and continued until she hollered again. When she left her house in her pickup truck, they barked in their kennel behind the house.
I have spoken to Monica on just two occasions. The first was six years ago shortly after I moved here and introduced myself. She wasn’t particularly interested in me, but made up for it with surprising admissions about herself. She seemed careworn, even old for someone whose hair was still brown. She was slight and wiry, dressed in men’s faded jeans, boots, and a tan work shirt. She wore no jewelry, and her long hair was pulled into a loose ponytail under a faded baseball cap.
She talked about herself eagerly, without looking at me, describing how she built the house herself and was building another house on a parallel road a mile or two away. She told me she was not happy here, on our road. Although hers was one of the first houses on her side of the road, now there were three in close proximity — certainly close enough for the neighbors to hear the barking and to be barked at, I thought. And right on cue, Monica told me her nearest neighbors had called the sheriff about her dogs. She also said she used to train horses, but not anymore. I thought: poor dogs, poor horses. She went on to say that her parents were ailing and she was called away a lot to care for them. Poor parents, maybe. She had decided to move to the new house even though it was unfinished.
She seemed annoyed by and resentful of just about everything. She said, “I won’t have a mailbox here, are you kidding? They’ll just knock it down and steal my mail.” (This has not happened to me and my mailbox.) She said she and her building crew would be at the bar most nights if I wanted to join. Lightbulb moment.
Last summer Monica returned in her pickup truck and trailer. The dogs barked while she moved things into the house, and a sign appeared at the end of the driveway announcing a yard sale. Curious, I walked over and reminded her that I was her neighbor from across the street. She said the furniture she was selling was from the rental unit in her other house, and some of the other items had belonged to her parents. It was all junk. She invited me inside to see some more junk. I was very curious to see the inside of the house, but there was nothing personal inside, just junk. The walls were a graying shade of off-white. Dingy carpet had not been vacuumed in ages. Empty kennel crates appeared to be the only permanent furniture. Two dogs shadowed the edges of the room, low to the ground, borderline aggressive. I deliberately ignored them. But one of them stared at me, advancing slowly, as Monica talked about her parents’ crappy stuff. Noticing her dog, she suddenly screamed at it with a tremendous display of anger, “Wolf! Get back! Get down!” Time to go, I thought.
Monica disappeared within a week, and the house went dark again.
So, the house is deserted almost year round. I like it this way. No barking dogs and no inarticulate yelling, no headlights careening into my front windows at night. A guy comes every week during the summer and mows long, curving swathes of grass on a riding mower. Otherwise, the place is quiet. The long driveway is directly opposite mine, giving me a clear view of Monica’s unchanging house at the other end. Grass invades the gravel and blurs the edges. It’s a path for deer and night marsupials, an airstrip for meadowlarks, woodcock, robins, red winged blackbirds and sparrows. On rainy nights it’s a trysting place for frogs, salamanders and toads, and it’s a cafeteria for ferrets and owls. Tree swallows swoop above it and chirp all summer long, fishing for insects in the sky, undisturbed.
Every year in early spring, a pair of killdeer returns to nest. They are some of the earliest migratory birds to return. One day there is silence, the next day (and evening) the sky is alive with their short repertoire of piercing cries, “kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer kill-deer.”
Peace is fragile and life is short. I worry about the killdeer, about their open nest on the gravel. Some years I see their young scurrying along behind the parents, looking just like the sandpipers I saw as a child on Long Island Sound. Sometimes a parent bird will play decoy if it perceives danger, faking a broken wing to lure a predator away from the chicks. Some years the killdeer fail to raise a brood. Perhaps Monica’s truck destroys the nest when she returns, or her dogs raid it, or the guy who mows the yard runs them over. We humans are usually thoughtless beasts busily building our lives and resenting our kind, and mostly oblivious to everything else. I can only hope the killdeer will be all right this year, and the next, however many years they return to the silent driveway of the deserted house across the street.