Dying Light and Other Stories
By Donald Hayes
THE RITES OF LOVE
1. (December 29, 1999)
She is alone in the dark house, the mansion Byron will soon replace with a larger mansion, which will be another of his many attempts to offer her some consolation for the death of their son. She sits in the sofa in what had been Bobby's bedroom. The shades are drawn. The only light in the room comes from the digital alarm clock on the nightstand. A red glow. 6:34. It will be there as long as there is electricity, she thinks, as long as there are numbers. What does it mean? 6:35.
She remembers that Byron had told her he would call at seven. He is in Colorado, looking at land he hopes to develop outside Ouray. He hadn't wanted to leave her, but he'd had no choice really. He had already put the realtor off twice. It was only a day. He'll be back late tomorrow afternoon, but even then he'll be gone to her much of the time, busy in his work, buying and selling, building, trying to keep their lives going. No. That's not fair. He's a good man. He loves her. But what good did any of that do now? "I guess you might be at prayer meeting, though?" he had said, leaving. "If you are, I'll just leave a message and call you back later. Or you can call me if you want to, when you get home, you know?"
Elizabeth hasn't been to church since Bobby's funeral, has missed two months of Sunday-morning sermons, Sunday-evening Bible study, and Wednesday-night prayer meetings. Before that, Sunday after Sunday, Wednesday after Wednesday during the twenty-two years since her first love, Monty Shepherd, had been paralyzed by a freak football injury and she had let herself be forced to abandon him, she had been a steadfast member, she had taught Sunday school, had sung in the choir, led Wednesday-night Bible study groups, and tried hard to persuade herself that God was love and mercy and that the world made sense, even if it was a sense we couldn't grasp. That's what it meant to have faith, she told herself, you had to be willing to believe in what you couldn't understand. She had known better, really, but she had found ways of protecting herself, of denying and pretending. That was over now. After Bobby fell asleep driving back to the university at the end of Thanksgiving break, crashed his car near Natural Dam, and died, her sweet, beautiful boy, there could be no more faith, no more pretense. There is only the truth. Horror is horror. God is either an absence or an assassin.
She doesn't want to be there when the phone rings, doesn't want to hear Byron's familiar, concerned voice, not even on the answering machine. She rises, walks out of Bobby's room, down the hallway to the staircase, down the stairs and through the great room and the dining room and the den-every curtain drawn, every room dark-and down more stairs and into the game room where her men had watched ball games on the big-screen TV. She opens a door and steps into the garage.
Only two cars now. She stares a moment at the empty space. His Miata gone. Their gift to him when he graduated from high school. Racing green. Where was it now? She had ridden in it once, that car, the day they'd given it to him. May. Top down in the bright sun, the wind in her hair. She remembers his pleasure as he talked to her of cornering and acceleration. How young he was, all gratitude and eagerness. It had made her feel young too. Everything had seemed possible then.
She gets into her BMW, opens the garage door with the remote, starts the engine, and backs onto the driveway. She sits there a moment, engine idling. Then she turns on the headlights and stares into the illumined garage. Just the one car left there now-Byron's Navigator with its American-flag, United-We-Stand bumper sticker. The persistent illusion, she thinks. The absurd slogans in the vacant night. She backs away.
It is the dead of winter. Bits of sleet drift down the brittle air. Let it come, she thinks. Anoint the roads with ice. Kill us all.
Without thinking about it, without even being aware of making the decision, she drives north up 59, Bobby's road, toward Natural Dam. When she realizes what she's doing, she decides to go again to where he died. She knows exactly where it is. She had gone there once, after they'd removed the car, had stood and wept beneath the broken tree. Now she would see it in the dark.
She'd pull over when she got there, stop, get out, stand beneath the tree again. Then maybe she'd get back in the car and just sit there until morning came. Or maybe she'd drive on. Just drive. Where? She doesn't know. She doesn't want to think. It doesn't matter.
Then, climbing the hill just past the old Uniontown road, she sees, on her left, gleaming with Christmas lights, the house where Monty Shepherd still lives. Though Byron hasn't missed any of the twenty-one reunions the old team has on Super Bowl Sunday each year, Elizabeth hasn't seen Monty for five years, since the night the high school named the new gymnasium after him. He was so frail then, in his wheelchair, his frame so long and slack and skeletal, his face so gaunt, his eyes so huge and sad, that at first she could hardly look at him, but then, after the first turning away, couldn't quit staring. She sat there, next to Byron, surrounded by the other teammates and their wives, in the first row of folding chairs, listening to, in turn, the president of the school board, the superintendent of schools, the high school principal, the current football coach, and, finally, Jug Cates, who had coached all those championship teams in the '50s and '60s and '70s, and who had been the coach that hot September night when Monty dived for a loose football and snapped his spinal chord.
That had been 1977. Grizzly Stadium. The Friday night before Labor Day. The first week of school. The first game of the year. Blue Mountain took the kickoff, ran three plays, and punted. The Ft. Smith punt returner, a short quick boy named Winchester-Jimbo Winchester, she remembered because Monty had told her how fast he was, how dangerous-caught the punt and started toward the near sideline, eluded a tackle, cut back against pursuit, and then was hit hard, high and low, by two Warriors, and the ball was free. A scramble of diving players. Monty was one of them, the all-state golden boy, the one who never rose again.
Had the chord been broken one vertebra closer to the brain, he'd have died right there on the field. A vertebra lower and he'd have been paralyzed from the waist down. Or so the doctors said. As it was, he could move only his head and neck and, awkwardly, slowly, as if it were some alien apparatus, his right arm.
When, after three operations and months of rehab, the doctors said Monty would never have any feeling below his neck, never walk, never even be able to feed himself, Elizabeth's parents-responsibly, considerately; they didn't want two lives lost to the same accident-had forbidden her to see him again. And she hasn't. Not really. She hasn't talked to him-just the two of them, a real talk-in more than nineteen years. She did the practical thing. She made another life.
She slows, turns off the highway, follows the gravel drive around to the back of the house, parks the car, gets out, crosses the patio, and presses the buzzer beside the door.
His mother opens it. Mrs. Shepherd. Clara. Heavier now, gray, nearly 70. She looks calm, patient, competent, as if nothing that appeared at her door could surprise her. It's just the two of them here now, Monty and his mother. Mr. Shepherd, a bricklayer, a drinker especially after what happened to Monty, died six years ago in a job-site motel room. Monty's sister and two brothers have their own families, half-grown kids. Nieces, she thinks, nephews. Going on. They just keep going on. Mrs. Shepherd too. She has cared for, devoted herself to, an invalid son year after year.
There is a mild curiosity on Clara Shepherd's face. Then, recognition. "Elizabeth Warnock," she says, using the maiden name. She nods, a little solemnly. She has, Elizabeth sees, remembered not just the name, but Bobby too. Death. "Are you all right?"
"I just wanted to see Monty a minute, Mrs. Shepherd. If it's okay."
"Sure. You come on in. It's just fine."
Elizabeth steps into the house. She stands there, just inside the entrance, awkwardly, and Clara Shepherd takes her in her arms. "I heard about your son," she says. "An awful thing. No sense to it at all. I don't know. I'm sorry. Real sorry."
They hold each other, the two mothers, until Elizabeth has finished weeping. Then Mrs. Shepherd releases her, finds her a Kleenex, and says, "He's in his room, watching a game, most likely. He'll be glad to see you."
Following Mrs. Shepherd down a hallway, Elizabeth hears televised ball-game noises. He's in the room at the end of the hall. Its door is partway open. When they reach it, Mrs. Shepherd steps in and tells Monty there's someone here to see him. There's no audible reply. Standing there, looking past Mrs. Shepherd into the softly lighted room, seeing only the foot of a bed, a rise of gray blanket over his feet, Elizabeth wishes she could vanish. To trouble, she has brought more trouble. To pain, more pain.
She hears his voice, "Mama," the second syllable a plaintive, rising note.
Mrs. Shepherd turns around to Elizabeth. "Just a minute," she says. "I need to do something for him." She steps into the room, then looks back at Elizabeth. "Don't you go anywhere now. It's all right."
She turns her attention to Monty. Awaiting permission to enter, unable to leave. Elizabeth thinks that what she wants is to be left where she is, alone in a hallway, suspended between here and there, then and now-to be, but to be nowhere.
She hears a noise, a metallic rattling, and glances into the room again. The same slant of bed and bedding. The feet. Then Mrs. Shepherd moving by the bed. There's a plastic bag in her hand. It is filled with a greenish brown liquid. Elizabeth looks away and waits.
"Has to be done," Mrs. Shepherd says when she returns to the door. "We got used to it a long time ago, me and him. But it shames him still, sometimes, when there's other people around." She shakes her head, then offers Elizabeth an apologetic smile. "You go on in now. He knows you're here. He's ready."
She turns and walks back into the room. Elizabeth hesitates, then steps through the doorway and stops. The hospital bed is at the center of the room. Everything is arranged around it. The big-screen TV against the wall facing the foot. A standing lamp and a recliner on the far side. On this side and a little behind it, a movable stand holding a laptop computer. The bed has been adjusted so that Monty's torso lies at a forty-five degree angle. His pillowed face is turned toward her. It is long, emaciated, pale. The skin looks brittle. He says only, "Bronc."
"Yes. Monty. I'm ... I'm ..."
He stares at her a long moment. A saint's eyes, she thinks, haunted, spectral, huge. She feels judged and, when he turns back to the televised game, dismissed. Released, she glances at the game. Basketball. "The Demon Deacons," he says, "and the Rainbow Warriors. Who to root for?" His gaze returns to her, but the eyes are gentle now, welcoming. "Still it goes on," he says. An eyebrow arches, mock ironic. He offers the hint of a smile. "The way of the world, I'm afraid."
"About half the time," his mother says, "I don't have any idea what he's talking about." She gestures toward the recliner. "Why don't you sit down, Elizabeth? I got some cleaning to do in the kitchen."
Elizabeth hesitates, looks at Monty again. "You can change the channel," he says. "Find another game."
She nods then, as if in response to an invitation she understands, walks around the foot of the bed, and sits in the recliner.
"You need anything, you just holler now, you hear?" Mrs. Shepherd says and leaves the room.
It is the same room she had sat in the last time she had talked to him, the last time she had seen him like this, just the two of them. That had been nearly three years after he'd been crippled, less than a year after everyone had given up hope that he would recover and his mother and father had brought him home from the rehabilitation center in Hot Springs. Monty's father had built the room, adding it onto the side of the house. There are sliding glass doors in the wall to Monty's right. They open onto a deck. Though drapes are drawn over the doors now, Elizabeth remembers a downward slope of lawn, a view of sunset over the woods beyond.
Elizabeth had come here that last time to tell Monty that she would marry Byron.
Excerpted from Dying Light and Other Stories by Donald Hayes Excerpted by permission.
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