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
A writing challenge on the prompt “ritual.”
. . .
The boy pulls on each boot as his father watches
he grabs his helmet by the strap
lifts it from the dirt where he dropped it
trudges through the barn’s shadowed maw where the ponies stand in cross-ties
and a thousand girls in jodhpurs adore them.
I prompt him at every step of the ritual tacking-up as he
swipes at the pony’s legs with a brush
broods at its refusal to lift a hoof for the pick
forgets where its bridle, saddle, and the stained pad are stored
although he has been taking lessons all summer.
Here’s what he thinks about riding
and his father’s nostalgia for horses —
He drops the saddle on the pony’s back
with the pommel facing backward.
. . .
© 2018 Patti Witten
photo / Patti Witten
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