The phone rang ... it was long distance.
“Fort Ripley calling.” It had come then. Flooding emotions engulfed him, threatened to stifle him. Is this the last picture in the story? Will it all come out? After years, years stretched out like beads on endless string. He began to romanticize, to dramatize the situation, and smiled at the thought as maudlin. All this between the operator’s voice and the next one, the banker who had been trying to reach him all day long. Joe was very ill, probably dying (undoubtedly, thought Bud, who swifly rebuked the thought, because I want him to?). Could he, Bud asked himself, could he come at all? Was it fair that he must? All the old bitterness arose, checked and startled by his own voice, Bud’s voice, answering calmly: “Unless it is too dangerous to delay, I must wait until tomorrow after the morning service . . . there is a train at one? I’ll make it, and be there tomorrow afternoon.”
It was not too dangerous, Kohler thought, though of course one couldn’t be sure. Tomorrow then. He would tell Joe.
And in the big hall the bunch were decorating for the party. He dismissed his problem from his mind, dismissed it even though it lingered, and prepared himself to be poised and gay and full of ideas for crepe paper streamers and games. He stood as a phantom beside himself, and saw himself proving equal to everything demanded; a martyr to emotions, and their victor. He would like to tell them, or at least have them know, especially Lolana, all about it, and be comforted by her praise of him; he dared not, so instead he hinted at it, and looked a little sad, which was only fair enough, since he felt that way, and he knew she was sympathetic anyway.
So through the dancing, and the program which he announced with more than usual wit, and the grand march, in which he found it pleasing not to march with Lolana, but make Mother Wilcox happy instead; so through the “good nights” and “so glad you liked its”; so through the homeward ride in which it was pleasant to have Hermie, a fine young lad, sit on his lap with an air of brotherly proprietorship; so, thinking how to tell the others that he must take a trip north after the morning service, letting it be understood that he had been called to a sick bed, an old friend of the family. And tired, to bed.
His subject next morning was “The Prodigal Son,” though he called it “Why Sin Fails,” and he pursued the theme to a triumph of earnestness, thrusting himself into his subject consciously, pushing past the sense of futility and moodiness that had been dismissed but did not go, wondering if Aunt Dode sensed that he was talking over and above a personal weight of shadow, thinking, no, Mother Berg would get it more quickly . . . and Aunt Dode knew his sentimental tricks so well, she wouldn’t more than smile a little. He ought to dislike her for smiling, but he loved her instead.
The bunch was courteously casual about his trip, and he was grateful. They took him to the train, and remembering Vera C—’s bothersome question (they might mention where he was going), he let them see him buy a ticket to Brainerd instead, and disliked himself, and Joe, and allowed the hurt feeling against Mother to possess him just in passing to show himself that he disapproved of the deceit; but he said, “Brainerd” to the ticket man just the same.
A smelly little old train; he felt vastly remote from it, and superior to it. He tried to recall the first time he had taken it when he was eight; how he had felt then; and could only remember fearing he would go by the station, and rehearsing the things his Mother had told him to tell Joe, and the adroit deceits that were to be his replies to suspicious questions; the childish explanations to explain accidental references to “Dad,” or “Ed.” And then he remembered Joe’s burly figure at the station, wild red beard, his funny laugh which in someway wasn’t mirthful; the queer old shack without any floor in it; the chipmunk that sat on his own shoe and ate peanuts from the bag he had brought—the one Dad had given him; the huckleberry patch where he had picked more berries than Joe; the Indian grave with the rotting bones which Joe had kicked casually, and which he had wanted to cover up but didn’t quite dare to; the hazelnuts gathered and spread on the shed roof to dry; the little song he had sung to himself, “Daddy loves his little boy.” He tried singing it with “Mother loves ...” and it worked; but when he sang “Joe ...” both his voice and the meter faltered. Now that seemed significant to him. Now he wondered if Joe would be much changed; he was twenty years older—and the little boy, too; only not really twenty years, he thought. He wondered what he would find; perhaps Joe was dead; what would he do in that case, and what would people think when he didn’t look sorry. Would he himself preach Joe’s funeral service? What did one do about undertakers? And then surged up his metaphysics: It was wrong thinking to dwell on such things; instead he must know life for Joe; God was life, and intended life, free, happy, healthy, for his children . . . but maybe it was best for Joe that he pass on, if he were really as sick as Kohler had said. And then came the rebuking thought. You want him to die; you want to have it over with and never come back here again.
He thought of Josie and what she would want him to do. Could it be that Joe really had money buried somewhere as he had buried the old papers, under the eaves? It ought to go to Josie if there were; he would like to be square with her. She was hard, like Joe, but she was honest and good, and starved for nice things and for love.
Over and over and over his mind pieced the pattern; pieced and puzzled. If Joe only would live decently; if only he would live with Josie—she wanted him to; if only he would go to a Home. Then his head began to ache from the stuffy car—he wished there were a parlor car. He wudged his coat into a heap, and dozed in the dusty plush, and wished he were back at Berga, and he were only dreaming and could force himself to wake up with relief.
It was dusky dark when he reached Fort Ripley. He had no idea which way Joe lived; it wouldn’t be over the stile and through the woods as it was so long before. He looked about and saw a dim light next to Clouse’s store (yes, he remembered the name; interesting). They would know where Joe was. Children, lots of them, and a man who was slow of thought and speech, answered his knock; curious, they were, to know what he wanted; yet knowing, and wondering about him. Bud felt them eyeing him; felt they were critical; felt he deserved it; felt he didn’t.
He picked his way over the soggy fields, as he had been directed; back of the old ice house. A rambling inky blackness appeared in the dusk; he thought he heard a dog whimpering; picked out a dull light, bumped into a fence that resembled a barbwire entanglement, and knew that it was Joe’s barricade against cattle or any other animals that might bother his garden. He found a way through; turnstile; Joe hadn’t changed in that respect. Rapped at what seemed to be a door. Voices; a dark man, a shadow in shadows, bewhiskered, gruff, smelly, let him in. Through a dark, odorous passage, to a hut of a chamber, lighted by a guttering candle and the glow of an airtight heater. He looked for Joe. There, in the corner on a narrow cot. Even in the semidarkness he knew the bedclothing was soiled. Was this death that looked at him through bleary eyes?
“Hello, Pa. Know me? Tough to see you like this. Pretty bad, eh?” The hand that took his was hard and rough. He felt the eyes of the man who had let him in. Joe answered, “Hello, Charlie. Thought you’d come. These damned guts put me here.”
Bud turned to the visitor. Tried to be rough and ready with him; not to talk down to him; not to seem to “high-hat” him; to make him feel that he hadn’t known Joe’s condition; that it wasn’t necessary for him to live as he did; that his son was both embarrassed and grateful for a neighbor’s kindness. “Been up with him two nights, eh?” “Needed sleep?” Bud shuddered as he saw his duty before him; to stay here with his father overnight; perhaps to admit the Grim Visitor; to snatch a little sleep on the second cot opposite Joe’s; a sagging spring with a few newspapers on it. Joe’s voice:
“You can make yourself comfortable there, Charlie. Hank wants to go home. I’ve got to have a little to eat every little while; so damned weak; if I can get my strength back, be all right.” And so on the nauseating details of his sickness. How nauseating, how hard on Joe—and him—he wasn’t to know till the night went on. Hank left Bud and Joe alone. Bud lighted all the candles he could find; heated water in a black kettle. Found more water, mostly ice, in the outer passage; found bread; found tea; butter; sugar; washed dirty cup and spoon; fed the broken old tyrant on the cot; did for Joe things he had never done for anyone; closed eyes and nostrils to the intimacies of an emaciated body and a grievous complication; snatched brief sleep, to awake with a start to find the fire low, and the figure on the cot moaning; heaped up wood; more hot tea; toast; forced himself to keep awake; to listen to the maunderings of Joe, his father, telling of his troubles, telling of the damned doctors and damned hospitals.
“But wouldn’t you be better off in a hospital, where you’d get some care?”
“No damned nurses around me! Hank can take care of me, if he wasn’t so damned lazy. Go to the hospital, first thing they’d give me a bath—next they’d operate. Don’t want ’em pawin’ me over. Once I get my strength back, be all right; almost spring. Good for years yet. Doctors don’t know nothin’.”
Queer idea of disease. Only morally corrupt have smallpox, said Joe; only filth caused it; no hope for anybody with smallpox, deserve to rot, curse ’em, said Joe. “—But don’t you think,” Bud started, but stopped. Why trouble this old man with his ideas, either of mind or medicine. He had the feeling of a vast gulf, wider than twenty years before; a gulf dividing ages of thought. Impassable, weird in the twentieth century. Joe telling of prying out, little at a time, the root of a rotted tooth; using an old file; pain made him faint, fell and bruised his damned old head; but he got up again and kept on; finally got it out.
Pointed to an old bottle on the dusty window ledge. “In there,” he said. “Bread and sugar what a man needs to keep well. Look at me, first sickness in twenty years; ninety-six years old; born in Cayon Township, Maine, twenty-sixth of February, eighteen-thirty-one.”
Bud marvelled, and he wondered; marvelled and wondered more and more as the old man went on; went on till dawn came, with interruptions; of his nausea, his other troubles; his weakness and need of hot tea. The candles had gutted out when dawn came cold and gray, unfeeling as the Death that waited in the shadows. Bud sighed with relief, and with the sickening need of sleep. Joe was better; his unbelievable vitality, with the aid of weak, hot tea, and the most primitive, uncivilized discomforts, had thrust back death as the dawn had vanquished the darkness. But here on the cot, was a darkness that could not be banished by any power of man’s, thought Bud. Again, as on the train, only with a far greater vividness, came that feeling of nightmare, of unreality. Surely this couldn’t be two hundred miles north of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in 1926. It was ages earlier; time of tallow dip, and log cabin, of agonizing discomforts and pains, of fears as dark as night, and of unloving battle and grim hanging on against odds.
“Fix yourself something to eat, Charlie,” said the figure on the cot. Bud shuddered. He spent the early morning trying to scrape the dirt from the loose boards on the earthen floor. He heated unnumbered pails of water, melted from the clean snow outside. He washed Joe’s hands and face, and made sickening explorations of the weakened frame beneath the gray covers; he tried to answer cheerfully the questions and be interested in the stories of Joe; a foreign language more difficult than Greek; he found a half-starved dog in a shed the day revealed, and took him bread and water; and the gratitude of the poor little beastie brought tears to his eyes where Joe’s suffering had brought only paralyzing horror and despair. He went to the banker and made arrangements for assurance of such comforts as Joe, with his ideas of comfort, would countenance. He hunted up Hank, and got his promise (for a sum) to see Joe through his mending illness. He bought towels and dishes; burned rags and filth. He listened to Joe’s stories, to his queer, distorted ideas of his son’s work: Bud saw himself a half-crazed, religious zealot, converting city heathen to Joe’s ideas, as Joe glorified his son. He would have thought his father mad, if he had not remembered monologues in the huckleberry patch; in the shack beyond the stile, up on the hill, stories his mother had told of things that grayed her hair at sixteen and made her life a fear and trembling.
He went back to town. The train (thank God!) had a chair car. Bud sank into the big chair, and slept, slept, slept, till the porter’s “Minneapolis, boss,” awakened him, He lived for days in a nightmare of shudderings, —and then he forgot.
© 1984, by Ronald and Beverly Potter
All rights reserved.
Reprinted with permission.