A Human Being’s a Human Being
As soon as they heard the crash, Darnel and the rest of the crew knew exactly what had happened. They’d warned Jerry not to park his pickup there, where Shackleford Road came down the long hill, on the outside of the curve just below that patch of ice. Somebody coming down the hill not realizing the ice was there would be bound to lose control, go straight through the curve and into Jerry’s Ford F-150.
“Aw, it’ll be all right,” Jerry had drawled, not because he really thought it’d be all right but because he was an aw shucks kind of guy who was hard to get moving again once he was stationary. That made him a good boss, though. He didn’t work the fellows in his landscaping business any harder than he worked himself, and he was never late with the paycheck, so they liked him a lot. But that didn’t stop them from taking great delight at the thought of what must have happened to his pickup.
They’d been using landscape timbers to build a big three-level azalea bed at the rear of Mrs. White’s house. At the sound of the crash they dropped their tools and ran around to the front, trying not to look so happy about it, but, hey, they’d told him not to park there.
Whoa, hadn’t been some little tin can of a Geo Metro bouncing off the pickup, no, a city garbage truck had plowed right over it. Totaled!
The driver was out of the garbage truck and climbing up on what was left of the pickup cab. Suddenly, he straightened up, threw his hands up in the air like a referee signaling a touchdown, and began to holler.
“Oh God, oh God, oh God!”
They, the four of them, ran up and looked through the exploded windows of the pickup. There was Jerry, or what was left of him, all scrambled up with chrome and plastic and upholstery.
All four shouted “Oh God!” at almost precisely the same moment. Eric and Kyle threw their hands up while Les ran his fingers through his hair even though he was wearing filthy White Mule work gloves and Darnel slammed the crumpled hood of the pickup with the heel of his hand. The right front fender fell off and clattered against the curb.
They stared at the fender a long moment. Then they peered back into the pickup. Jerry Polk was dead, no doubt about that. He was messed up bad, real bad. The top of his head, from the eyes up, was just about gone, although the jaws and mouth were pretty much intact.
They must have all noticed it at about the same time, protruding from his mouth a good six inches, dark brown, big around as a fat man’s thumb.
It was the garbage truck driver who said it: “Why, it’s a dang Baby Ruth!”
It was. One of those giant-size ones, costs sixty-nine cents or thereabouts. Not only that, scattered about Jerry’s mangled body were three empty Baby Ruth wrappers. Obviously Jerry had finished off two of them and had been taking his first bite of the third when the end came.
Jerry was a big man, six foot, six-one by probably two-fifty pounds. He was always fighting the battle of the bulge, and he’d told the fellows just a couple of weeks ago that his New Year’s resolution was to win that battle. He aimed to be down to two hundred by July 1.
“There’s them that talk about it and them that do it, and, boys, you’re looking at the fella that’ll do it,” Jerry said in that way of his that suggested he was doing it all just to entertain them, which he probably was, although he also said his wife Barb was behind the whole thing, so maybe there was something to it after all. In fact, ever since New Year’s he’d brought mostly turkey sandwiches for his lunch, lettuce--a little mustard, no mayo--Tupperware containers of fresh carrots and celery, and thermoses of unsweetened tea. And here he was now, dead, a king-size Baby Ruth sticking out of his mouth, three empty wrappers beside him.
“Looks like he’s sucking on a stogie!” Kyle said.
“Wait a minute,” Les said. “I was up here not two minutes before the crash getting a pry-bar out of the back of the pickup. I swear to God I didn’t see Jerry then. What the hell?”
They all looked at Jerry, puzzled. But then it was obvious what the deal was. After all that bragging about his new diet, Jerry had hunkered down on the seat of the cab so they wouldn’t catch him sneaking a snack. They thought about big ol’ Jerry Polk, going on sixty, a grandfather, squeezing himself down under the steering wheel and scarfing down Baby Ruths.
It was then, the wail of sirens growing nearer and nearer, that Darnel suddenly began to laugh. It lasted only a second before he caught himself. The others looked at him like . . . like what? Like he was a monster. Or maybe like they wanted to laugh, too. But Darnel was the only one who did.
Almost as old as Jerry, Darnel had worked at the landscaping company longer than the others, which is no doubt why Barb Polk called and asked him to be a pall-bearer at the funeral three days later. Darnel sat in the pew reserved for pall-bearers instead of sitting with the guys from work. Staring at the closed coffin, imagining Jerry Polk lying there with waxy hands crossed over his chest, probably a little pillow or something where the top of his head had been, and a king-size Baby Ruth sticking straight up from the center of his mouth, it was all Darnel could do to keep from laughing. He saw the guys watching him like they were just waiting for him to lose it.
Darnel wasn’t proud of himself—to even think about laughing at an awful thing like that—but what can you do? A human being’s a human being.
After the funeral the guys got together and had a few beers. Jerry’s wife was going on sixty, and although she relayed phone calls and did some of the paper work, they couldn’t see her carrying on the business by herself. They all figured they’d be looking for work before long, which made for a grim afternoon at the ol’ watering hole.
They were pleasantly surprised a few days later, then, to receive a call from Barb telling them to report back for work. Her and Jerry’s oldest son, Weldon, was moving back from Houston to take over running the business. Darnel barely remembered a big-boned, open-faced kid who worked a few summers for his dad back in the ‘80’s. He’d probably be an asshole, the fellows said, would come in and try to bust balls. Well, they wouldn’t put up with it.
In fact, Weldon turned out to be a lot like his dad, easy going, just took things in stride.
The first thing they had to do, of course, was finish up the job at Mrs. White’s on Shackleford. It was weird going back there, but evidence of the accident was pretty well cleaned up, except for a six-inch piece of plastic that’d been part of the headlight rim, maybe, and a long gouge out of the earth where the garbage truck had pushed the rear end of the pickup over the curb.
Kyle picked up the piece of plastic and looked at it a long time. To Darnel he looked like he was trying not to laugh.
Darnel hadn’t even thought about laughing until then. It came out in a snort through his nose, which Darnel tried to cover by pretending to sneeze. The others looked at him. Then Weldon Polk drove up for his first day on the job.
Darnel was ashamed. Laughing that first time could be forgiven—the shock, the horror, probably the mind has to find a way to cope with that. But here a week after the accident when he’d had time to think about it, consider what it meant for Jerry and his loved ones . . .
What the hell was wrong with him? He felt so guilty he got a migraine.
He thought about it all day on the job. Then it came to him, the explanation. Life was hard, so very hard. It could do terrible things to you, things you could not stand to think about unless you had some way of fighting against despair. Bearing up under it in any way you could manage—laughter, say--was an act of heroism. Now, Darnel saw himself as a lone voyager, braving the storm that would one day, inevitably, overwhelm him. Him and all those he loved.
It was a week or so later. They’d moved on to another job. Darnel was on break, trying to make conversation with Weldon Polk, a friendly enough guy but, like his dad, not much of a talker.
“So,” Darnel said, “how’s your mother doing by now?”
Darnel had expected a perfunctory, “Oh, she’s coming along. She’s going to be all right.”
Instead, Weldon stared off into the distance, sighed.
“It’s hard for her, very hard. It was quite a shock, you know. It wasn’t like Pop had been in bad health or anything. One morning he’s fine, leaves for work, and then the next thing she’s getting a call, and she never sets eyes on him again. That was the really hard thing for her, I think. The way he was after the wreck—you know what I’m talking about—well, we wouldn’t let her see him like that. That was the reason for the closed casket. Now, I don’t know. Terrible as it would have been, maybe it would have been better to let her see him one last time. Sort of give her a chance to say good bye.”
The uncharacteristically long spate of talking seemed to exhaust Weldon, and he slumped back on the pine log where he was sitting and pulled at his nose. He looked like he was suffering.
You don’t expect a man to get over his father’s death in two week’s time, of course. Still, Darnel was bothered, very much bothered. If the son, who hadn’t lived at home for fifteen or twenty years, was this affected, what about Barb Polk?
Darnel had seen Barb at least once or twice a month over the twenty-odd years he’d worked at the landscaping business and talked to her more often than that on the phone. On top of that, the Polks would throw a company picnic every summer and treat the employees to the all-you-can-eat buffet at Western Sizzlin’ every year around Christmas, and Barb would never fail to be at both. While Darnel wouldn’t go so far as to say they were friends, he and Barb were certainly friendly with one another. Barb would joke about needing to fatten him up (Darnel being on the skinny side), and Darnel would joke about them seeing too much of each other, his wife was starting to get suspicious. Barb was easy to kid. She laughed easily.
Well, at least she used to. It hurt Darnel to think of Barb being tormented by visions of what her dear husband’s last moments must have been like. He imagined her pacing through the house in the daytime wringing her hands, and tossing in bed at night dreaming of explosions of blood and bone.
But it hadn’t been that bad, not really. The moment of impact, now, there was no way you could shrug that off, but even that, who knows, Jerry might not have felt a thing. And right before that he had been enjoying one of those guilty pleasures that people like best. So, all in all, Jerry’s last moments hadn’t been something you should ruin your life worrying about.
Barb Polk had no way of knowing that, of course.
At some point it occurred to Darnel that Barb’s suffering might be eased at least a little if she knew about the Baby Ruths. But then the idea of standing there describing to Barb how her husband looked, mangled and crushed with a candy bar sticking out of his mouth . . . no, ridiculous. It couldn’t be done. Still, as the days passed he couldn’t shake the idea. He’d lie awake at night imagining Barb lying awake, too, in pain, and he had the key to easing her pain but was too much of a coward to do anything. Yes, there it was. His hesitation to approach Barb wasn’t concern over being ridiculous but simple cowardice.
The next day at work he mentioned his idea to one of the guys, Les Tucker. Les had a level head on his shoulders. At first Les laughed like it was a good joke, but then when he realized Darnel was serious he gaped at him like he had two heads.
“Darnel, if you say anything to Mrs. Polk about those Baby Ruths, I’ll stomp the living crap out of you,” Les said.
Darnel wasn’t put off the notion, though. It wasn’t like he needed Les’s permission to do the right thing.
They sat in the den, talking. Darnel had been in the Polks’ house dozens of times, but never beyond the little room adjacent to the kitchen, which served as the company office. He felt unnerved by the unfamiliar surroundings, but even more so by Barb herself. All the Polks were big, fleshy people, slow moving and quick to laugh. But Barb, in the weeks since Darnel had last seen her at the funeral, seemed to have withered. Her red hair looked thinner, she walked with a stoop, her eyes shifted left and right like she was searching for something but not finding it, and as she talked she would pinch nervously at the loose, spotted skin on the back of her hand. Still, it was she who carried on the bulk of the conversation as Darnel sat wondering why he was there.
He’d known the second Barb opened the door to him he’d never tell her about the Baby Ruths. It wasn’t just that the notion was so ludicrous—though there was that, too—but the effect he’d wished to achieve he now saw as absurdly inadequate to Barb’s suffering. Her life had been altered—mangled—just as surely as had Jerry’s. What balm had Darnel to offer her?
He stayed ten or fifteen minutes. At the door, desperate to be out of there but even more desperate to offer her something at least, Darnel shrugged, unable to quite look her in the eye, and said, “Well, life goes on.”
For the first time that day, Barb smiled. She reached up and patted him on the cheek and said, “You’re a good boy, Darnel,” as if she were comforting him.
He drove away from the house but a block down the street pulled over to the curb, overwhelmed with bitterness and self-reproach and sorrow. He hadn’t done Barb a bit of good, not a bit. Things were even worse with her than he’d imagined, yet he hadn’t done her a bit of good. Why had he thought he could in the first place? The thing with the candy bars . . . Good God. Now he could hardly recall why that had somehow seemed to be the key to the whole thing. Crazy! You bring healing to a tortured spirit with love and understanding and a willingness to take the pain upon yourself, not with Baby Ruths. It had been presumptuous of him to think he could do that for a woman to whom he was hardly more than a friendly acquaintance. Barb had a daughter living in town, after all, and a son who’d moved back home to offer the sort of support a son should be expected—
“Op!” Darnel choked back a sudden sob.
A son should be expected . . .
He drove out to the edge of the city, turned off onto a two-lane blacktop that led up to a long one-story red-brick building perched on top of a low hill.
He walked down the hallway. After the dingy late-winter afternoon, he almost squinted against the garish phosphorescent lighting. Well, at least they tried to keep it bright in here. An attendant, a look of bored disgust on his face, was pushing a mop at a splash of pink vomit on the tile floor. Give them credit, they did their best to keep things clean. As he passed room 208, the odor of disinfectant gave way to the stench of urine. He’d forgotten to hold his breath. Room 208 always smelled of urine. He guessed there wasn’t anything they could do about it.
He turned into Room 213 without breaking stride, as if he were afraid the slightest hesitation would doom him.
She was sitting where she always sat, in her wheelchair by the window, the curtains now closed. On her tray were the plastic water cup with the straw sticking out of the hole in the top, the box of tissues, the plastic African violet in its tiny pot, the tube of lip balm, and the two-sided mirror, which she was holding with both hands, inspecting herself with evident consternation.
“Just look at my hair,” she said when she realized somebody had walked into the room.
Darnel walked around the bed until he was standing between her chair and the window. He put his hand on her wrist.
“Hello, Mama,” he said.
“Just look at my hair,” she repeated, then looked up. When she saw who it was, a smile broke like sunshine across her face, but just as quickly the smile faded into a look of puzzlement.
“Is this June?” she asked.
Lately “Is this June?” had been added to the list of phrases she repeated in various arrangements like a mantra to whose secret meaning only she was privy: “Just look at my hair.” “How are you doing?” “What am I supposed to do now?” “Is this June?”
“No, Mama, it’s February. Cold out. But nicer now than January. Don’t you remember that ice storm in January? You could see it on the trees outside your window.”
The old woman looked around as if trying to locate the window.
“No, I don’t guess I remember,” she said.
He gently pulled the mirror from her hands and sat it on her tray. Then he took her hand and patted it.
“That’s OK,” he said. “Don’t worry about it.”
She looked around again, made a motion as if trying to sit up straighter in the chair, sank bank.
“What am I supposed to do now?” she said.
“You don’t have to do anything. Just rest. They’ll be coming to take you to supper any time now. Bet they’ll have something good for you.”
She opened her mouth and grimaced.
“My lips are awful dry,” she said.
“Do you want some lip balm?”
Darnel took the tip off the lip balm and handed the tube toward her. But she just sat there with her mouth open.
“Do you want me to do it for you?”
He squeezed a drop of the balm onto the tip of his middle finger, then, starting at the left corner of her mouth, ran his fingertip over her upper lip, then over her lower, then again in another circuit as she held her mouth open like a baby prepared to take the nipple.
After he took his finger away, her mouth remained open, and she made a little grunting sound.
“Do you want some more?”
She closed her mouth and shook her head. Then she looked around, puzzled.
“What am I supposed to do now?” she said.
A dull ache began to throb under his skull, at the very top of his head.
“I don’t know,” he said.
At the sound of his voice she looked up and, as if she’d just realized he was there, a beatific smile broke across her face.
“Is this June?” she asked.
Darnel sat in his car on the nursery home parking lot. It was fully dark now, and very cold, but he couldn’t summon the energy to start the car. Why had he come there? To see his mother, of course, but more than that. He’d wanted to bring her something—a word, a gesture—to bring her healing, or if not healing, if that wasn’t possible, to ease her way just a little. But he’d done nothing.
Perhaps he’d expected too much of himself. She was too far gone. If he’d told her the secret of life she’d only have forgotten it twenty seconds later. A person should do what he can do, not attempt what can’t be done. That way madness lies.
Darnel reached for the key in the ignition, then paused.
He had a sudden vision of his wife, hands and arms beginning to be age-spotted now, like his own, care wrinkles spreading like river deltas from the corners of her eyes. He was late for supper, but she wouldn’t be concerned. The fact that his wife wouldn’t be concerned that he was late coming home from work on a cold winter’s night struck him as awful, almost horrifying. What had happened to them? How often, over these last few weeks as he was so consumed with thoughts of Jerry and then Jerry’s wife, had he thought of his own wife, who struggled on day by day by day without a single word of love or healing or comfort from her husband?
He thought of her now. He thought of Tom Tom, their son, and Brittany, their daughter. Tom Tom wasn’t doing so well. He drifted from job to job. He hadn’t had a girlfriend in years. Sometimes he’d come home and live for awhile, then he’d go off on his own again. Darnel dreaded the times when Tom Tom was home. Brittany was doing OK, he supposed. They didn’t hear much from her. She lived in Conway, a half hour’s drive away, but they hardly ever saw her. Why did his own daughter not come home?
Darnel’s sister, Penny, lived across town. She injured her back in a fall some years ago and was in constant pain. Darnel suspected she might have a drug problem. His brother, Paul—
That night Darnel lay in bed staring upward as they trooped in procession through the darkness: Jerry, Barb, his mama, his wife, son, daughter, sister, brother, the old bachelor in the house on the corner, the woman who delivered the newspaper, thrown out of her apartment, no place to live, her photocopied plea for help for her and her kids, handwritten scrawl full of misspellings and exclamation points:
US!! LOST EVERTHING!!!
He’d given them nothing, none of them, he’d given none of them anything to help them in their suffering.
The next day he got up and went to work. What else could he do?
He hoped that this thing that had happened to him—whatever it was, this new awareness, or hyper-sensitivity—was just a passing phase, or like an accident from which he could hope to recover. But over the following days his gloom deepened. The fellows at work tried to kid him out of his mood. They played practical jokes on him. One day he opened his lunch pail to find a king-size Baby Ruth lying on top of his ham sandwich. He flinched as if it were something shockingly obscene, a turd or severed hand, and hurled the lunch pail across the ground.
“Hey, Darnel, man, you’re starting to be a real drag. You can’t even take a friggin’ joke any more,” Kyle said.
He couldn’t. He couldn’t laugh at anything.
“What’s there to laugh at?” he said.
The others didn’t answer but edged toward one another as if closing ranks against some stranger from a far country, an enemy bent on conquest, or a carrier of the plague.