Laurel stood in the rain at the side of a busy two-lane highway. She looked slowly, methodically, up and down the long stretch of each lane. Her frame was dripping wet, unsteady, floundering. Her place at this desolate spot, far from a store, or a crosswalk, or a sidewalk, had no purpose or explanation, but no one noticed.
She looked to the sky with outstretched arms. Her body swayed. She looked at the ground and again at the sky. Crying now, crying so hard that her shoulders heaved, and her body quivered, and then she threw herself prostrate in front of a large truck. The truck driver reacted in an instant, and steered around her without slowing as if she were a pile of trash on the road. She had failed; her frustration compounded her pain.
Cars swerved as their tires skidded on the slick road and on the wet, grassy shoulder, all drivers working as desperately to miss her as she was desperate for them to run her down. Even now with her moment of decision past, with all the conviction she could muster, she still wanted to die, and end the suffering. She was searching for death with the same tenacity that most humans clung to life.
The highway traffic had stopped in both directions, and she lay in the road crying, humiliated. Horns honked. People yelled and cursed at her.
“Get out of the road!”
“What’s wrong with you? Are you crazy?”
What was wrong with her? Was she crazy? Or did she suffer with a pain that no one but she could know? Did anyone care?
With all the cars and trucks warned, and their lethal force muted, she just stood up and casually brushed the loose asphalt and pebbles from her arms. An eerie calm took over her face. She wiped off her dress and stepped casually back to her spot to wait again for death.
Cars began to move along now. Drivers passed, staring with an array of expressions. Some shouted for the inconvenience she had caused them; a shout of anger for the five minutes that she had delayed their lives while seeking to end her own. But they all drove by, carefully, with their windows rolled up, the air conditioners on high, windshield wipers swishing back and forth, and radios playing. The public moved on, and the individuals who were recognizable and unique in their cars while stopped, were now just another soulless mass of anonymous traffic. She could use the anonymity as a tool to achieve her goal, her quest for death, but if she knew them, maybe not.
If anything, she had empathy for others. She could reach into the soul of anyone she met if given a few minutes of quiet conversation; that was her talent. She could feel their pain, anxieties, frustrations, sadness, or she could dance with their joy, but not today. She did not want to know the person who would be required to take on the burden of her death. But someone would carry the weight this day; she could no longer bear the pain.
Vines of depression had inched their way through the cracks of her psyche, and had grown heavy like kudzu on an old, abandoned farmhouse. The vines had grown fast and destructive in the fertile holes of her soul, and the weight brought her down.
Cars began to speed up now. The traffic was back to normal running slightly above the speed limit. A few traveled too fast swerving in and out, cheating their own deaths. If anyone noticed the woman, wet in the rain, they chose not to stop, they chose not to help her; they were too busy to care.
She stood on the edge of the road, staring straight ahead, waiting for the karma of the right moment. She teetered in one spot. She was not afraid of doing it, she was not afraid of dying, she was afraid of living.
The rain eased and the road steamed. She was at peace. The air seemed fresh and the breeze warm. It had been a beautiful day before this summer storm arrived. She looked up as the clouds parted, and the sun blazed through hotter than before. She could hear the splatter of another rain shower coming. She stood motionless and stared back at the pavement as her long black hair hung straight and dripped on her shoulders. Her dress was molded to her frame. Her hands were balled up into fists held firmly at her sides. She would end it, but just a few more breaths to breathe, a moment more to live.
A horn piped a harsh warning. She looked up, and saw that it was the forceful herald of a moving van, barreling towards her at full speed. She watched the oncoming traffic with the caution of a pedestrian waiting to cross the busy road. The heavy truck careened forward with all of its force and noise and weight. Perfect.
On the edge, at the last moment, she cast herself prone directly under the huge front wheels of the van. One wheel rolled over her legs crushing the bones beneath the knees. The force moved her more parallel than perpendicular. The remainder of the truck rumbled harmlessly over her body.
The truck driver immediately applied his brakes, brought his truck to a rapid stop, jumped out, and ran back to her. The rain came again and poured down.
“Why didn’t you kill me, you son of a bitch? Why didn’t you just kill me? Why? Oh God, just kill me!” She screamed, and cried, and rolled on the ground propelled by an agony beyond her physical wounds.
The driver looked into her anguished eyes and fell to his knees. He put his hands to his thighs to brace his unnerved body. “I’m sorry, lady, I…” he stammered.
“You should have killed me.” She draped both arms across her face and cried. “I want to die…would someone just kill me?” She screamed, and then began to sob uncontrollably, unconcerned with her injuries.
The driver took off his shirt, folded it, and put it behind her head. She screamed. He looked at her grotesquely mangled and bleeding legs; a bone was exposed through her skin.
“Why didn’t you kill me? Why? Why?” She wailed and held her hands up to the sky. “Oh, God just please kill me.” She dropped her arms to the ground, twisted in pain and sobbed.
Other drivers were now helping. A man proclaimed himself as a doctor, and worked to stop the bleeding. The driver looked into her eyes again, but they were blank as if her soul had escaped and left her body to deal with this disaster. On his hands and knees in the road, he too started to sob. Finally, he sat beside her, wrapped his arms around his knees, and looked up to the heavens. Sirens wailed in the distance and a crowd formed an inquisitive circle around the two pained souls.
“Why did you hit her, Hank? Were you drunk again?” Bubba tossed a clipboard onto his desk. “They didn’t put anything on the accident report, but I think the cops cut you a break. I bet you told them you were a veteran. You’re always leaning on that excuse.”
“No, sir, I was not drunk. It all happened so quick, there was nothing I could do, Boss.”
“Why did you get so involved? After the ambulance left, you could have just got back in the truck and drove away like most people would’a done, but not you. No, you leave my truck with a whole houseful of furniture on the side of the road, and ride with that lady to the hospital.”
“Somebody had to go with her. She didn’t have anybody.”
“She had the ambulance EMTs and the police. She didn’t need you. What the hell good did you do her?”
“I was there for her, sir. Somebody needed to be.”
“Yeah, yeah. We’ll be lucky if she don’t sue us.”
“I don’t think she will. She said she wanted to die. She was screaming at me, asking why didn’t I kill her. Everybody heard it.”
“Well that’s just great. Some ambulance-chasing lawyer might just sue us because you didn’t kill her. Do you know how much that accident cost me?”
“No, sir, I don’t. It was a terrible and unavoidable accident, and I’m sorry.”
“Well sorry don’t pay the bills, Hank. I’m not paying you for the time you were off the job, and I’m docking you two days wages for the downtime on the truck. Now get back to work.”
Hank’s boss, Bubba Jaborski, was a wide, fat man with thick fingers and a large belly that protruded with a look that mimicked a late stage pregnancy. His neck had two rolls of fat and his body looked as if he might explode at any moment. Diminishing strands of hair combed over his baldhead and held in place by some repulsively aromatic adhesive jell was the only feature well tended. The strands never moved, even when he sweated as he did today.
“Remember, I’ve got your monthly job report and it’s due to your parole officer next week. I know he wouldn’t want to hear bad things about your performance.”
“But, Boss, you know I’ve done all you’ve asked, everyday, all the time.”
“Yeah, well I didn’t tell you to run over nobody.” Bubba mopped his forehead with a dirty handkerchief and stuffed the cloth back into his pants pocket as he struggled up the stairs to his office. Hank hung his head in frustration and went back to work. He was anxious to finish his day of drudgery.
It had been a two weeks since the accident, and Hank thought maybe tomorrow evening he would go to the hospital to see if she would agree to accept a visitor. He hadn’t had a drink in two days and planned to make it three. If he could leave the bottle for three days, maybe he could leave it alone for four. The last time he had gone more than five days without a drink, he had had no choice. The correction officers had frowned on drinking in prison. Two years behind bars had helped him kick the pain pill habit, but slowly he had drifted back to alcohol and the calming influence of marijuana. He needed something for the pain.
His time in prison, and now still on probation, had put severe limits on his job prospects. He meant to keep this job despite his boss. He needed the work. The meager veterans’ benefits were not sufficient for financial survival, and he was determined to improve his life. Prison had been a warning, and a discipline that had brought him out of his cycle of sorrow, self-pity, remembering, and getting high. He wanted and needed something else or someone to help break him out. He had prayed for it, and thought maybe this accident had been the answer. He needed to go to the hospital tomorrow.
Hank stood at the doorway for ten minutes unsure of what to say. Finally he stepped forward with no better plan than when he had arrived. “May I come in?”
“Who are you?” She propped herself up on her elbows.
“I, uh, I’m the guy who hit you. I, I, just wanted to see how you’re doing and to…well, to apologize.”
“Oh…no need to apologize. I wanted someone to kill me.”
“Ma’am, I’m real sorry to hear you say that again.” Hank moved further into the room and stopped at the foot of her bed.
“Yes, ma’am, that’s what you said before, when I hit you, and I’m real sorry for that. Maybe if I had been more alert, maybe if I had not had a drink before I started driving.”
“Please stop. I jumped in front of you, that’s it. So stop apologizing.”
Hank was quiet for a moment. “Mind if I sit awhile?” His shy gaze turned to the floor. “I ain’t got nothing else to do, and I thought I’d keep you company this evening.”
“Oh great, you have nothing to do so you just came to the hospital to see poor me.” She lay down on her pillow and stared at the ceiling. “Don’t put yourself out.”
Hank sat in the visitor’s chair next to the window. “I’m sorry, ma’am, that ain’t how I meant it to sound. I meant, I wanted to come say I was sorry, but it was…damn, I ain’t no good at this. I don’t have the words, but I know what I feel, and you’ve been a picture in my mind since the accident. I just had to come see you, and tell you I’m sorry.”
“It wasn’t an accident.” She continued to stare at the ceiling.
“Well it was to me, and I can’t get your face out of my mind. I see you crying on that road and yelling at me like it was my fault you weren’t dead, and I can’t get nothing right.” He dropped his face into his hands and started to sob. “I can’t do nothing right, even when it comes to accidentally killing someone.”
She turned her head to look at him. “What’s your name?”
After a moment, he said, “Hank.” He did not look up.
“Hank, it’s okay. It was me who jumped in front of you. I wanted someone to kill me, but I guess I don’t want that now. It wasn’t right for me to blame you. I was at the end of my rope, and I’m pretty much still there. Except now my legs are broken to add to my troubles.”
Hank wiped his eyes with the back of his sleeve, stood up, put his hands in the pockets of his blue jeans and looked out the window.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Laurel. But didn’t you know? How did you find my room?”
“I knew your last name. It was on the accident report the cops gave me.”
“I keep telling you, it wasn’t an accident.”
He turned. “Well, that’s what you say, but the police gave me an accident report so that’s what I’m calling it.” His palms were sweaty. He rubbed the side of his jeans a couple times and briefly looked at her, the room was silent for an uncomfortable period.
Hank finally asked, “You got anybody to help look after you?”
“No. Why do you care?”
“Well, I didn’t want to cause no trouble with your husband, or boyfriend, or whatever.”
“Umpphh. You don’t need to worry about that.”
“Who’s helping you? You got family to help?”
“No.” She bit her lip, and looked at the blank TV through another awkward silence.
A nurse walked in with a dinner tray, set it on her overbed table, and rolled it into place. “You need anything, hon?”
“How about the TV? Here’s the remote, just press this button to turn it on and this button is the channel selector. You can also raise and lower the bed with these buttons right here.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’ve mastered it already after a short two weeks in this hospital.”
“Okay, but you’re new to this room, just trying to help.” She checked Laurel’s blood pressure, and gave her a small plastic cup with medications. She stood beside the bed waiting for Laurel to swallow the pills.
“Okay, okay, Nurse Ratched, I’ll take the meds.”
The smiling nurse left.
The two sat in silence as she ate her fruit cup and picked at beans and meatloaf.
“Why did you want to die?”
“Who are you, my shrink?”
“No, I’m just interested in what could be so bad that a person like you would do something like that.”
“A person like me? You don’t know what kind of a person I am.”
He unbuttoned a shirtsleeve and very methodically folded the sleeve over and over stopping just short of his elbow, and then did the same to the other sleeve.
Finally he said, “No, ma’am, I don’t know you, but you’re a nice looking lady, you seem smart, and I think I’d like to get to know you.”
“Why? Why would someone want to know me? Why would you, especially you?”
Hank finally looked into her dark brown eyes. “Cause I saw something in your eyes that day when it happened. When you were looking at me, and yelling at me, it was like I could see into your soul. I’ve never had that kinda feeling before, it was weird. I’ve never felt that close to anyone, except maybe once.”
“What did you see?”
He placed a leg over his knee and picked at the laces on his heavy leather shoe. “I saw pain, and a soul with no love, like an empty hole, in outer space. And I saw frustration; it was something you couldn’t fix… And I felt like I was looking in a mirror.”
Laurel looked down at her dinner and pushed beans around, but didn’t eat. She moved the table away from her bed and lay back. She was silent for a time.
“Maybe you’re seeing things.” She looked at him curiously.
“Well, maybe I was or maybe not.” Again, Hank searched for the right words. “You would be the one to know.”
She closed her eyes. After a few moments, she pressed buttons on the remote. They sat for a long while and watched TV. No words were spoken until a nurse came in to check on her, and told Hank that visiting hours were over.
“Can I come back tomorrow, Laurel?”
“Yes.” She pressed a button and the bed reclined. “Please close the door when you leave.”
“Good morning, Laurel. I’m Doctor Harrell. How are you feeling today?”
Without a glance, Laurel asked, “What kind of doctor are you?”
“I’m a psychiatrist. Have you ever been treated by a psychiatrist?”
Laurel looked out the window, and said nothing.
“Do you mind if we talk awhile? I’d like to see if we could help you.”
“Laurel, I’d like to find out what’s going on in your life. It appears you’ve had a difficult time recently.” The doctor moved to the side of her bed. “I’d like to discuss what happened the day the truck ran over your legs.” She flipped open a notepad and pulled an ink pen from her pocket. “Were you having a bad day?”
“No one cares.” They both sat silent for a few moments. “That bad day you’re talking about was the best day I’ve had for a long time.” Laurel spoke flatly while she looked around the room, and avoided eye contact.
“We do care. Can you tell me why you jumped in front of that truck…why you wanted to kill yourself?”
Laurel hugged a pillow to her chest and stared at her toes peeking out of the white cast covering her broken legs.
“Laurel, I can only help you if you share with me. I understand that you may not trust me now. But you are a beautiful lady with a lot to live for. I’m sure we can help resolve the issues that have made you want to hurt yourself.” The doctor paused waiting for a response, but none came. “You can have a wonderful life.”
“No, I can’t,” Laurel snapped. She closed her eyes and lay back in her bed.
“I’m going to prescribe some additional medication for you. We’ll have you continue with an anti-depressant. I’ll come by again tomorrow, and maybe we can talk some more.”
Laurel lay motionless and said nothing.
At the moving company warehouse, Hank pulled his time card from a gray metal cardholder and punched-in at the company’s antiquated time clock. He put his lunch box in the small, cluttered break room. A long, rectangular window high on the wall revealed an orange glow as the sun lit the eastern sky. Another positive day, he thought and then walked to the rear loading dock.
“Hank, I’ve got a delivery for you. Get two men from the warehouse to help you. This is a good customer, and I need you to get it right. If I find out you’ve been drinking, or that load doesn’t get delivered on time, then you’re done. Remember, your monthly performance report is submitted tomorrow.”
“Okay, Boss. I promise I’ll do my best.”
“Well, you better.”
Hank went to the warehouse and announced the job opportunity to the crews sitting on the loading dock waiting for work. The crews didn’t get paid if they weren’t on a job, and most were eager for the chance. Hank picked two reliable men that had previously worked with him. Those not chosen, grumbled or threw verbal insults toward Hank as he walked away. The trio climbed into a twenty-five-foot diesel-powered truck, perfect for the job, and drove out of the lot.
Occasionally as they worked, Hank’s hands quivered, but when he wasn’t carrying furniture, he shoved them in his pockets so no one could see. He needed a drink, but he needed to be sober more. To stave off the craving, he smoked a chain of Marlboro cigarettes and guzzled water. Driven by the work and a new strength in his will, he fought the urge and completed the job without relenting to his alcoholic demons.
His crew finished a good hard day’s work, and they were satisfied. The customer paid and tipped generously for their efforts, and they returned to the warehouse tired but proud.
“Boss, we got it done, and the customer’s happy. He gave us double the normal tip.”
“Why, what did you say to him?”
“Nothing, sir. We worked our asses off and he saw it.”
“Let me see the tip money.”
“But, sir, I really need that extra cash.”
“Yeah, well I need to withhold taxes on tips, so let me see it.”
Hank handed him the two hundred dollar tip. The boss took five twenties and gave Hank the remainder.
“That should cover federal, state, social security, unemployment and any other taxes I’ll have to pay.”
“Don’t want to hear no more about it. Now get outta here if you want to keep this job. I’ll call you when I need you.”
“Any time, sir. I need the extra work.”
Hank had trouble getting full-time work or better conditions. After jail time, few companies would hire a man, and if they did, it was usually only part-time. The work was hard, the owners were harsh, and the treatment of former felons didn’t always follow the law. There were few complaints from parolees; it was the job or back to prison.
Bubba used the situation to his advantage. Hank’s parole officer was one of Bubba’s special friends, and Bubba was generous to his special friends.
Today, Hank took his money and went home. He showered, dressed, and ate a sandwich. On his way to the hospital, he stopped at a convenience store for smokes and chewing gum. He stared at the beer cooler. It held him, it called him, but he didn’t move. His hand moved to the glass door handle and he held it, he squeezed it. A young man stepped up looking at the beer, but hesitated.
“Excuse me, sir.”
Hank moved back, broke the strong grip of desire, and walked to the cashier.
“Anything else for you today, buddy? We’ve got all our Budweiser products on sale.”
“No, no. I’ve got what I need,” Hank said and left with his hands and his will shaking.
Hank knocked on the partially closed door.
“Hello? Laurel? May I come in?”
He heard a toilet flush and moved back into the hallway. After a few minutes, a nurse came out of the room.
“May I go in?”
“I think so.” She stepped back into the room. “Laurel, you have a visitor.” She held the door open for Hank. He shuffled in hanging his head and looking at his feet. Even at his age, he was still shy, especially around unfamiliar women.
“Hi,” she said as he moved to the visitor’s chair by the window.
“Hi. How are you today?”
“Like I was yesterday. Why?”
“How are your legs feeling?”
“Like a truck ran over them.”
“With a morbid sense of humor like that, you must be feeling better.”
“Mystified?” He chuckled.
“You don’t give up, do you?” Laurel looked him over. “Did you shave today?”
“Shave?” Hank rubbed his face and his chin. Was it that bad?
“Yes, shave. You know with a razor on your face. Looks like you’ve gone a couple of days without. Is that the way you normally keep yourself?”
“No, well sometimes. It depends.” Hank was embarrassed.
“Depends on what? Either a man shaves everyday or he doesn’t.” Laurel took a drink of ice water and crunched on the ice in one side of her mouth.
“Why are you so sad?” he asked.
“Hmmm. That’s a long story.” She shook her head back and forth.
“I got time.”
“I won’t be in this hospital long enough to tell you.”
“How long before you get out?”
“They say in another week, maybe two, but I don’t have anywhere to go, so for the sadness question, maybe that’s reason number uno.” She raised the bed a little higher.
“Don’t you have a home?” Hank looked perplexed.
“I did once, a nice one, but I’ve been living in shelters off and on for the last two years. With these legs, I won’t be able to get there, so right now I don’t have a plan.”
“Oh.” Hank looked at the floor. Now he was really at a loss for the right words.
“They can’t just put you out on the street with your legs like this. You can’t walk. What’s the use of fixing you just to put you out on the street?”
“I don’t know, but that’s how the system works. I guess Medicaid will only pay for two more weeks, and somebody has to pay.”
“Maybe I can help. You could, you could, maybe stay at my place until you can arrange something else,” Hank spoke the words – my place – so softly, he wasn’t sure that she had heard him.
“Arrange something? How the hell am I gonna get a place? I’ve got nothing.”
“We’ll work something out. There’s an agency or welfare or something to help. There’s gotta be something.”
“I’ve tried before and there’s nothing.” Laurel answered with a voice of resignation.
“Well, like I said, what about staying at my place for a while, maybe till you get back on your feet.”
This time she heard him. “Your place? You’ve got to be kidding.”
“No, I’m serious. I want to help. I need to help.” Hank stood and moved to the side of her bed.
“I don’t know, man. I mean I just met you. I don’t know who you are. You could be an ex-con or some serial-murderer preying on injured, helpless women.” Laurel looked past him, and stared out her window.
Hank moved to intercept her gaze. “I have two bedrooms. We can share.”
“I’ll think about it. Seems kinda strange. Me and you sharing a place, too weird.” She moved her eyes away from his and to the end of the bed. She was shaking her head no.
“We can get to know each other while you’re here in the hospital, and you can decide later.” Hank moved to the window and looked down into the parking lot. They were both quiet for a while, contemplating their path.
“Why did you do it?” Hank asked.
“Why do you care?”
“I told you. When I saw your eyes, something changed; something was different. I can’t explain it, but it got inside me. I need something to care about. You’re that something that just came to me outta nowhere. It’s like fate, or God, or something put you in front of me as the answer to my prayers.”
“You prayed for this to happen?” Laurel’s mouth hung open bewildered.
“Not like what happened. I prayed for something to change my life. I prayed hard. I think this changed me. I think this was my answer.”
“I’m on some pretty powerful pain medication so that sounds weird to me right now. They also gave me something for depression. Duh. So I’m a little more cordial than my normal self. Don’t take my carefree attitude for the real me, or one day if you hang around, you may be disappointed.”
“Why are you so sad?”
“You asked me that before.”
“Did I?” Hank turned to look at Laurel and smiled.
“I tell you what, Hank, you tell me a story, and then I’ll tell you one.”
“What kind of story?”
“A story about what makes you want to hang out with me, about why you thought my eyes were a mirror to your soul. By the way, that’s pretty heavy.”
Hank hesitated, arched his back and seemed to be struggling with a thought. He put his hands in his back pockets. “That’s hard, I don’t know…maybe.”
“Maybe? I’m sorry, but that’s the deal, Hank. I’ll show you my soul if you show me yours.” Now Laurel was watching him intently, looking for clues of insincerity in his body language. Was this guy for real? “I don’t need any more trouble in my life, and I’m thinking what I see is trouble. So if I don’t know who you really are, then I can’t decide if I want you to keep coming around.”
“Okay, I suppose that’s fair. What do you wanna know first?”
“Your choice, cowboy, but it’s got to be something that tells me who you are, not some normal run-of-the-mill tale about you, and your buddies out drinking or hunting. Something real.”
“Well, okay, but it won’t be pretty, I promise.”
Hank worked another difficult shift at the moving company. He had only smoked five cigarettes today. When happy hour arrived, instead of heading for his favorite bar on upper King Street, he went to the hospital. As he entered Laurel’s room, a nurse was giving her medications for the evening.
“How y’all doin’ today?” Hank asked cheerfully.
“Afternoon, cowboy. We all are doing fine, all things considered. My day has been just swell. Used a bed pan, had a sponge bath, got a shot in my butt that still hurts, and watched Jerry Springer because I couldn’t get the remote to work, just swell. How about you?”
“Not as good as I’d like, but better than some.”
“Tell me a story, Hank. I’ve been waiting all day to hear it.”
Hank took off his hat, moved the visitor’s chair closer to her bed and sat. “Well, I reckon I been thinking about what to tell you, where to start and all. Like what part of my life would tell you who I am, and there really ain’t no place to start but at the beginning with me and my wife.”
“I was married.” Hank stopped for a moment and looked down. “But we done skipped ahead, so I got to tell it straight through or I can’t tell it at all. Otherwise it don’t make no sense.”
“Okay, sorry. If I’ve got anything, I’ve got time so please just keep going anyway you like.”
Hank paused, gazed at the floor with a blank stare and then snapped back to the moment.
“Grew up in a small town in west Texas. At eighteen, I married my childhood sweetheart, Angel. And, man I’m here to tell you, she was my angel back then; cute as a bug’s ear and sweet as sugar on peaches. We were in love, hot and heavy, couldn’t keep our hands off each other for the first couple years. Angel couldn’t wait to have babies; that’s all she talked about. We had a child about four months after we was married. Had another a year later. The two kids were great, and I loved being a daddy, but two little ones will sure slow down the romance.
“I worked at a rancher’s feed store. It was hard living for us, but we had young love to cloud that reality. Wanted something better for my family, but to make more than minimum wage in those parts, you had to work on an oil drillin’ rig or mining. Both jobs were hard work, long hours, and dangerous, and I might not be able to come home every night. I couldn’t stand the thought of that, not being home with my Angel and our two little ones. I mean they were the reason I worked. Hell, back then, they was everything to me.”
Laurel looked at Hank more closely now. For a moment, he had a sparkle in his eye as he smiled with the good memories, when he talked about his kids. She noticed a red tint in his short-cropped hair and on his cheeks, the fading freckles from his youth. In the memory he told, she could envision him as a young married man, cowboy hat tipped back on his head, and beaming as his kids played outside a house trailer.
“So I kept looking around and finally found a chance to get a little extra money and to earn some free college by joining the army reserves. A lot of guys did that out there in our county. No big deal, military drill once a month and two weeks in the summer. And then the Iraq War and Afghanistan came along. Got called up and had to train and go overseas for eighteen months in all. Lost my job at the feed store cause they had to have someone work it while I was deployed.
“We had been married five years the first time I went to war. Came back on leave after nine months and I was so anxious to see my Angel and the kids, I thought I would bust. But when I arrived at the airport, she wasn’t there to meet me. I had been travelin’ for twenty-four hours, came straight from the desert, and I had to catch a cab and wait outside my trailer for four hours. It was late when she got home.”
A dark mood erased his smile. Laurel sensed the change.
“I sat in the dark on a picnic table and watched. She stumbled around like she wasn’t sure what to do, and then started fiddling around in her purse for a cigarette, lit it and finally walked to a neighbor’s trailer. The kids came bustin’ out that trailer door, crying, upset. ‘Where you been, Mama? Where you been?’ They were grabbing her dress. The little one had his arms up begging to be held. But she didn’t answer them, didn’t hug them or nothin’. Just looked down on them like she was put out with the whole thing. The neighbor was pissed, they argued and the lady just turned around disgusted and slammed the door.
“Angel yelled at ‘em, told the kids to ‘shut the hell up’ and then drug ‘em by their hands back over to our place. Before I was deployed, she had never talked to our kids like that. She had never treated them like that. I was shocked and mad, but I didn’t say nothin’; just sat there.
“When she got to our yard, I stepped out of the dark and under the front door light so they could see me. My oldest, a sweet little girl, ran to me. The younger one, a tough little four-year old boy, he wasn’t so sure. My wife shoved him towards me. ‘Go say hi to your daddy, son.’ She reached in her purse for some gum and took another drag on her cigarette while watching the kids hug me. I looked at her and she just stood there with a hand on her hip.
“I didn’t want to fight or fuss at her. I mean, I had just got home after nine months where all I could do was think about her and those two kids. They had been my whole life, really the only people I knew and loved. They were my family.
“Although I had only been gone about nine months, it seemed like we had both aged fifty years. Young love weren’t there no more.” Hank picked on a loose thread on his jeans and let out a sigh.
Laurel sat still and quiet, studying the sad memory hanging on his face.
“My Dad had run off when I was ten and my momma died from lung cancer when she was fifty-two, the year before I got called up to go to war. My wife’s parents had moved to Washington State, and we didn’t hardly ever hear from them. They wandered around a lot; sometimes we didn’t know where they were for months at a time. So we were pretty much on our own.
“The last we heard from them was when they called us collect, just before I deployed to Afghanistan. Normally when they called, Angel would never want to tell me what they said, but somehow it always ended up about money. Angel would always send them a hundred dollars cash; cash that we couldn’t spare. So this time, I was secretly listening on our bedroom extension. The last thing they asked was if I was killed how much insurance money would the government payout, said they could use a little if that were to happen. Now ain’t that some in-laws for you. I get so mad every time I think about it; I just try not to. It don’t help.
“I guess Angel was bored setting out there in the high plains with no job, no family, nothing much to do but raise the kids. I’d like to say I couldn’t blame her, but hell, I was fighting a war for us…not just for my family, but for our country, and she couldn’t keep her pants on for nine months.”
Hank paused, looked at the floor with a blank stare. A moment later he continued. “I thought she loved me, but when it came down to it, maybe after the thrill of teenage marriage and all, maybe it was just lust, it sure as hell wasn’t love no more.
“We kinda made up while I was home, but she acted like being my wife, and my lover was more her duty than something she wanted. She said she was sorry for not meeting me at the airport. She said she got mixed up, thought I was coming the next day. But when I left to go back to the war, I could see she was just waiting for me to leave. She dropped me off at the airport four hours early. Said she had things to do, and she didn’t want me to miss my flight.
“Sure ‘nough about six months after I left, I got a letter from her. She said that she had sold the trailer and had moved to South Carolina. Said that she wanted a divorce. Then she said the kids were fine. She told me she hadn’t heard from her parents in months and then tells me what the kids have been doing and writing about everyday stuff that I would normally love to hear. But she had said she wanted a divorce, like it was just something that happens every day, like ‘Oh, by the way, I want a divorce.’ God Almighty.”
Hank paused again. He was shaking his head back and forth and his knee was bouncing rapidly like a nervous twitch. Laurel did not move. She searched his blank face. An announcement from the nurse’s station broke the spell.
“So there I was in Afghanistan with no way to do nothin’ about it, and my wife sells everything we own, and moves my kids out of the state, halfway across the country, and is living with a man she met in some bar. I don’t care how you slice it or dice it or try to reconcile it, that whole deal is just wrong. But there was nothin’ I could do.
“I thought about it for a long time. Hell, I didn’t have nothin’ else to do sitting in a sandbag bunker on top of a hill in that Godforsaken, shithole country. I’d look out over the village in the valley and see families living in mud huts and they were happy or at least it seemed that way.
“Their kids came outside and played every day with rocks and sticks and splashed in the creek. They loved soccer. We gave the kids a couple soccer balls that some company had donated to help us improve moral and to help get the local people to maybe like us better. Not sure it worked, but it was better than if we just ignored them. We would go out on patrol and visit them. The kids played with those soccer balls every day and they thanked us. They were all smiles. Kids are like that everywhere in the world until they get older, and someone teaches them to hate. I guess we all start out that way; innocent, I mean.
“At night, someone would shoot at us from that village and from the mountains surrounding us. Funny, those villagers that talked with us and let their kids play with us; those same people would try to kill us at night. They were good at playing for both sides. I reckoned their lives depended on it.
“So like I said, I had a lot of time to think about my marriage and my wife and my kids. I was hurt and mad and frustrated, but none of that would make a hill of beans to my situation. I reckoned my deal was a lot like the village. No matter what we had done or said, nothin’ would change, and we could just sit there and watch ‘em, or we could kill them all, or we could just pack it up and leave, and nothing would change that place, just like nothin’ I did was gonna change the situation with my family.
“I figured, even if Angel saw the error of her ways and came back to me, I could never trust her again. The only upside would be my kids; they were still young enough to love their daddy, and they would come back to me with smiles and love. Unless she had tried to teach them something else bad or wrong about me to try to make it okay to do what she’d done. I didn’t want her to teach them to hate. So I just sucked it up, and did my duty, and sat in that sand-bagged bunker for another few months until my tour was up.”
Hank was looking down at the beige-and-brown-flecked tile floor. He wiped his eyes with the back of his arm just as a nurse walked in to check on Laurel and take her dinner tray away. She came in with a smile, but immediately sensed the mood in the room. Laurel sat with a somber face looking at Hank. No words were spoken until the nurse asked, “Do you need anything?”
“No, ma’am. Thanks.”
“Sir, visiting hours will be up in another thirty minutes, but take your time, no hurry. Just press your call button if you need something, Laurel.” She walked out.
“Hank, I’m so sorry.”
“Don’t be. It wasn’t your fault. I reckon it was mine.”
“I don’t really know you well enough to be the judge, but I’m not so sure of that. That was an intense story. Are you okay?”
“Yeah. I haven’t told anyone that story since I got back.”
“I guess I owe you one now.”
“Yeah, I reckon you do.”
“But it’s kinda sad, too.” Laurel hung her head as she thought about it.
“Well, I thought that was what we were doing, getting to know each other and attempting to purge our demons.”
“Yeah, I suppose we are.” She paused and looked at Hank with compassion. “Are you sure you’re okay? Do you want to wait to hear my story another night?”
“No. Might as well keep going. I’ve just finished the easy part. I reckon I got more to tell another time.”
“Oh my, that was easy?” She composed herself, took a drink of water, lay back on her pillow, and looked at the ceiling.
“When I was six years old my family went on a picnic to our favorite mountain lake. We loved it up there. It was a deep, spring-fed lake with crystal-clear blue water, surrounded by mountains and a beautiful field of wildflowers. The park was remote, but a few people came up on the weekends. My mother was still okay then, at least as far as I could tell. I mean her mental state seemed normal. My dad, he was like the mountains, big and strong and always there to take care of us. He loved us more than anything in the world. He told us so every night when he tucked us in, and we said prayers together.
“That day, my older sister, Trish, and I were sitting on a flat rock with our dolls having a tea party. I was getting a little old for that and so was my sister, but she played with me anyway. She called the shots, and I looked up to her to help me sort things out, and show me the way. You know how it is with kids; she was my big sister. She knew everything. But now that I look back on it, I think I was overly dependent on her. She even talked for me when we were around strangers. I was just too shy, I guess.
“Mom and Dad were sitting on our picnic blanket with our younger brother, Blake. He was almost nine months old and cute as a button. Sometimes Trish and I played with him like one of our baby dolls. We’d dress him up and feed him. We loved him.
“My older brother, Frank, had climbed to the top of a high rock ledge. He was fifteen, almost sixteen, and we both had idolized him, but he didn’t want us around much, especially that year.
“That year had been hard for him. He had started to hang out with some boys that Dad didn’t like. They were snarly, rude delinquents that would tear things up, shoplift, smoke, and cause general trouble around town. I don’t know why my brother would go around with them, maybe because they were older and seemed cool to him.
“He changed a lot that year. He argued with our parents, and stayed in his room when he was home. The skin underneath his eyes turned a little darker, like an older person’s might do. Trish and I, even at our age, we noticed the change, and we also noticed that sometimes he was higher than a kite, full of energy, and other times, nothing made him happy. I didn’t know about that condition back then, but later we were pretty sure he struggled with a bi-polar disorder at an early age.
“That’s odd and hard to know or understand with a kid. We, or society, usually write the behavior off to being young and having too much energy or hormonal changes. It’s easy to ignore with a young teenager.
“We saw him smoking and drinking a beer once behind a neighbor’s garage, and he threatened us, and told us not to tell. The older boys laughed at us, and at him too. My sister told Mom, but she didn’t do anything. I think she was scared of my brother. But my bother heard Trish telling Mom, and the next day, she found her favorite doll hanging upside down from a small tree in our backyard with its head cut off.
“A week later my brother came in late, and my dad met him at the door. My brother had been drinking. Oh boy, did they have a blowout. Two mornings later, my dad found the tires on his truck slashed.
“After that, my brother would just sit or sleep in his room all day. My sister and I knew he was sneaking out late at night, and coming in before dawn. He would tell us about bad people that he had seen riding around in the neighborhood. He had taken one of Daddy’s guns out a couple nights. He told us he was gonna kill those people he had seen because they were checking out our house to maybe rob us or hurt us. We were scared of him and of those people. We never saw the people he thought were stalking us, but at our age that made things more mysterious and scary. We told Daddy about the bad men and he said not to worry, but of course we did.
“We discovered later these people were only in my brother’s imagination. He was so paranoid about a lot of things. He thought everyone was out to get him. It’s sad, but you could not convince him any different. He was so sure about it; he had proof he said.
“One night Daddy smelled something odd coming through the venting system. He walked in our brother’s bedroom, and Frank was smoking pot. He had a full bag right there on his bed.
“Daddy called the cops. Frank got off easy ‘cause he was a minor, but he was put on probation for two years and had to stay at home or with the family all the time. He got even weirder after that.
“With all that trouble, he was still beautiful. He had Mom’s blue eyes and a perfectly cut face. He was slim and well built and could have been a good athlete, but he had never seemed to care about that, at least not after he started hanging out with those older boys.
“And there he stood, on that bright, sunny, summer day, high up on that rock in all of his youthful glory. Mom and Daddy were sitting on the picnic blanket watching him, smiling, thinking maybe this was just the thing. Our family was all together, happy, perfect.
“The climb to the top had been difficult, and they seemed proud of him, watching him make his way up that steep rocky climb. Me and Trish were watching too, proud of how strong our big brother was and how happy he looked.
“We had been praying for this, because that’s what the preacher told us to do. I know Daddy had hoped that the bad days were behind us, and he had faith that things would be okay. But that’s how it goes, at least for me, just when you think everything is going to be okay, and you let your guard down, then life slaps you in the face with all it’s got.
“My dad waved at Frank, and took out a camera to get a shot. That’s when my brother pulled a joint out of his pocket and lit up so everyone could see. He smoked it with exaggerated antics to make sure everyone could see what he was doing. He drew in deeply on the joint and blew it out as a show. My dad started yelling at him, and my Mom was pleading for my brother to just come down. ‘Be careful,’ she said. ‘Be careful.’ My dad yelled, ‘you little son-of-a-bitch, what do you think you’re doing?’ Frank looked at them and smiled. He held his arms out wide and then looked to the sky. He stepped to the edge of the cliff and fell backwards into the lake. He landed flat on his back. The splash was huge.
“The drop was easily a hundred feet, maybe more. I’m not sure. When you’re a little kid, some things seem so much bigger. Well, it was high enough, I guess. The lake was really deep. It took a couple of days for the sheriff to get divers up there to find his body.”
The room was quiet. Hank sat motionless and Laurel wiped a tear away. She sighed heavily.
“There was a sad mood and rhythm at our place for a long time. My mom went into a sort of trance through the period while we were waiting to find his body, and the funeral, and for a few weeks after that. She and Daddy didn’t talk much for a long time; maybe they never did talk much afterwards. It was like Frank’s death killed our family’s spirit.
“I guess the hardest thing for us was leaving the lake that night. We were pretty much on our own. People dove in and looked, but could find nothing. The spot where he hit the water was hard to swim to, and dangerous for people. My mom kept looking at the water and crying like any minute he was gonna just pop right up, and shake his head and say, ‘Don’t worry, I’m good.’ My dad went at it every way he could, swimming, diving down deep until we thought he had drowned too. He climbed that dangerous rock to try to look down into that clear water, but saw nothing. I felt so helpless. I held onto my doll that whole night.
“As I got older, and had my own child, I was stymied by the thought of that moment, and how hard it would be as a parent to quit looking. How do you give up the search with something like that? How can you decide to walk away, get in your car, and drive home leaving your child in a deep, cold grave. ‘Don’t worry, son, we’ll be back tomorrow with help. Just hang in there.’ That was a long drive home and the start of a long slide down.”
An announcement came softly through a speaker outside the door. “Visiting hours are now over. All visitors are asked to exit quietly.”
“I’m sorry, Laurel. I’m so sorry about your brother, about your family.”
“Well thanks, Hank. It’s been a long time.”
“You said a long slide. Has the pain of losing your brother been what’s got you so down?”
“Well, like I said, it began a long slide. I’m kinda tired now. I guess the pain medicine is taking effect.”
“Did you say that you had a child?”
“Hank, I’m tired, please.” Her eyes were red, and a tear was running down her cheek.
“Shall I come see you tomorrow?”
“I’d like that.”