Being What It Is
By Laura Burkhart
Alicia has taken to visiting Hugh in the early morning on her way home from the night shift. In a small town where everyone’s known everyone else since homesteading days, there’s no such thing as visiting hours, especially for family.
It’s cooled down a bit during the night, and now she cracks open the window in Hugh’s hospital room to let in some fresh air. He’s still sleeping from the last injection. She stacks Helen’s latest batch of prayer cards on the bedside table where the chrysanthemum from the Church Women’s League is fading. She’ll dead-head it later.
The housekeeping staff still hasn’t taken away the apple crate that Alicia used to bring Hugh’s favorite pillow, good pyjamas and western novels. She wedges it into the corner next to Hugh’s IV pole. She won’t be picking any more apples, and Wayne probably won’t have time, farm work being what it is and all. Maybe Helen will organize the women from her prayer circle to go out one afternoon. Maybe she’ll ask Alicia to teach her how to use the apple press to make cider. Alicia smiles at the thought. That would be about as likely as Helen joining the LBTQ rights movement. Although, to be fair, before her arthritis got so bad, she might have volunteered to help out at the farm. Wayne says his mom can’t even play the organ in church any more.
Alicia picks up the Zane Grey she’s started reading to Hugh. Wayne must have stopped in last night—the bookmark has been moved forward. She skims the pages to catch up on the story so she’ll be ready to read if Hugh wakes up.
Tull always blunted her spirit, and she grew conscious that she had
feigned a boldness which she did not possess. He loomed up now in
different guise, not as a jealous suitor, but embodying the mysterious
despotism she had known from childhood—the power of her creed.
She turns the paperback over to read the blurb on the author. No wonder the language sounds so formal and pompous. Zane Grey had started out as a dentist. Is that what university does to you? If she doesn’t chicken out after the first class, will she turn into somebody else, somebody who uses that high-falutin language?
Her plan had always been to go to university after finishing high school. Even as a child she wanted to be a teacher and would gather the neighborhood kids together to play school on weekends.
But it hadn’t worked out. By the time she miscarried the unplanned pregnancy, she was married to Wayne and living on the farm.
“I thought it might be you reading to Dad.” Wayne stands in the doorway. He’s wearing the faded blue plaid shirt Alicia sewed him for his birthday the first year they were married.
“It’s a real page-turner,” she says. She turns the book over again. The cover shows a rugged-faced man on a sorrel horse, bandana tied over his mouth, eyes squinting into the garishly painted foothills. “Riders of the Purple Sage,” she reads the title aloud.
Wayne takes off his Co-Op hat and straddles the chair at the end of the bed. “We need to talk,” he says.
She looks at him. He could be any of a number of middle-aged balding farmers with a bit of a paunch. Weather-beaten, but not from riding the range like the hero on the cover of Hugh’s western. In fact, give Wayne twenty-five years and he could pass for Hugh’s brother. “Now?” she asks. “I just got off work.”
“Alicia—” Wayne stops when the nurse comes in to change Hugh’s I.V. bag.
Alicia stands up. “I need to go. Maybe we can talk later.” Although, she thought, they had said everything that needed to be said, over and over again. She doesn’t have the energy to explain once more why she needs to leave. Right now she needs to go home and continue her search for a reliable car for her commute to the university in the city.
“I’m going now,” Hugh mumbles from his bed, his eyes fluttering open. “You guys take care.” Then his eyes shut again and his breathing becomes more regular.
Wayne’s eyes are moist. “He used to say that every Saturday night when he left for the city,” he says. “Remember?”
“Of course I remember,” she says. “I’ll see you later.” She hands him the book and walks out the door.
Of course I remember, she repeats to herself while she waits for the elevator. Hugh working side by side with Wayne all week during seeding and harvest, only joining Helen in the city on Sundays. Sometimes he would find Alicia in the garden and sneak a cigarette, its smoke rising from the rows of peas into the shelterbelt trees while they pulled weeds and discussed politics or local events, or the antics of Wayne’s nieces and nephews.
The elevator arrives and the sound of its bell brings her back to the present. She shakes her head slightly and steps inside.
The house is stuffy. Alicia goes through each room and unfastens the north-facing windows. Then she opens the kitchen screen door to let a cross-breeze through. She makes coffee and fills her favorite mug—the one Wayne had given her after the first miscarriage. He’d stopped at the craft store on the way home from taking cattle to market, and she’d found the cup on the kitchen table when she came downstairs for the first time. Beside it was a get-well-soon florist card signed Love Wayne. She still loves that mug. It’s rose-coloured porcelain, seemingly fragile, yet strong enough to withstand the thousands of cups of coffee and resulting washings it’s gone through.
She takes her coffee out back and sits on the steps. Beyond the white picket fence, she can see the Rabinsky twins splashing in their wading pool next door. Already the morning is heating up. At the farm, Alicia would have a list of chores as tall as the twins. But here she just sits, enjoying her morning coffee, nothing to do right now except water the lilies before the sun gets hot.
Maybe she could offer to pick the apples after all. But no—a clean break is best but—Wayne looked so—and Hugh is dying—and Helen’s faith is being tested—but no. She stands up and uncoils the hose. She turns on the water and walks toward the flower bed.
She remembers the countless times she uncoiled a similar hose on the farm to water these same lilies, now transplanted here to her little house in town. She was watering them that early morning Wayne and Helen decided to move Hugh to the hospital. Exhausted from caring for him, Alicia had taken the night shift at the phone company to get some respite. Still, when the decision was finally made to move Hugh, she burst into tears. She sobbed all the while she packed his apple crate and got him ready to go.
When the phone rings she lays the hose in the lilies. She wipes her hands on her jeans on the way inside.
“Did I wake you up?”
“I thought you’d want to know the prayer circle is meeting at the hospital this afternoon.”
Alicia glances out the kitchen window. The water is spreading from the flower bed to the lawn.
“Just in case you want to join us this time.”
“I don’t think so,” Alicia says. Has Helen forgotten that after the third miscarriage she had stopped going to church at all? “But thanks for asking.”
“Well, yes. I suppose you’re too tired from working all night. You know, dear, if you moved back to the farm—”
“I have to go move the hose. I’m drowning the lilies.”
Alicia turns off the tap and stands for a moment watching the glistening drops sink into the lily bed. At least, she thinks, she won’t have to provide tea and dainties for the prayer circle ladies anymore. But is she becoming an ungenerous person? She never wanted—going just once wouldn’t hurt her. But no….
Back inside, she clicks off the phone. She soft boils an egg and eats it standing at the kitchen counter. Then she sits down and pulls the orientation booklets and registration form from the packet of material she’s received with her acceptance letter from the university. She reads the brochures again. With a steady hand she starts to fill out the form.
Wayne’s truck is parked in the driveway when she gets home the next morning. He’s just climbed down from the roof. That bit from the chapter she’s just finished reading to Hugh seems to be mocking her. The part when Jane runs into Tull in the village and they both pretend there was never any trouble between them…something about Jane being “responsive to peace if not quick to forget,” something about her meeting him half-way with a cheerful manner.
The twins are standing on the lawn watching Wayne lift the extension ladder into the back of his truck. “He was all the way up on the roof!” Isaiah yells. Seth takes his thumb out of his mouth long enough to whine that Wayne wouldn’t let them climb up the ladder and he wanted to see what it looked like from the roof.
“I was driving by and thought I saw some loose shingles,” Wayne says. “But everything seems to be OK.”
Alicia doesn’t remind him that now she has a landlord to take care of such things. And she doesn’t ask how he can spare the time to worry about her roof, farm work being what it is and all. Instead, she offers him a cup of coffee. The excitement over, the twins wander back into their own yard.
Wayne sits at the kitchen table while Alicia sets the small kettle to boil and buzzes fresh coffee beans in the grinder. He looks much larger here than in her kitchen at the farm. There isn’t much counter space, and fewer cupboards, of course. No pantry filled with gleaming jars of tomatoes, pickles, and applesauce. No clutter of pressure canner, milk separator or butter churn on the counter. He probably wonders what I do all day, she thinks.
Wayne moves the university papers and the bud vase containing a sprig of baby’s breath to the end of the small table. He leans back in the chair and spreads his hands on the woven place mat in front of him. He attempts to clean the tractor oil from beneath his fingernails. “Mom’s really upset,” he says.
Alicia empties the coffee grounds into the press. “Of course she is.” Alicia could hardly remember a time when Helen wasn’t upset about something, despite her faith.
“No. I don’t mean just about Dad,” Wayne says.
Alicia leans against the counter, waits for the kettle to boil. “She sent me a long letter full of Bible quotations,” she says. “Do you want to read it?”
Wayne shakes his head. His hair is getting long, nearly down to his collar. It covers up that place on his neck Alicia used to love, that made him look so vulnerable, almost child-like, when he was sleeping.
He sighs. “You know Mom. She’s likely said it all to me a thousand times already.”
“Well then,” Alicia says.
Wayne smiles and the worry lines around his mouth disappear. “When she gets an idea in her mind—remember when you started working the night shift and she was convinced you’d be getting obscene phone calls all night?”
Alicia laughs. “Can you imagine old Al Brady or Skinflint Flaman setting their alarms to call me in the middle of the night?”
“Alicia—” Wayne puts his head in his hands. “I’ve been wanting to call you,” he says quietly, “in the middle of the night.”
The kettle screeches. Alicia adds boiling water to the coffee press and stirs the grounds.
When she looks up Wayne is staring at her. “I’m just trying to understand what happened. Why won’t you talk to me?”
She fits the plunger on top of the press and thrusts it down with too much force. Hot water and coffee grounds splash over the sides. “We’ve already spent more time talking about this than anything else since we were married,” she says. “Unless you count our discussions on how to finance the last quarter of land we bought.” What kind of tone is that to use? she asks herself. Does she need to be so impatient? She wipes up the spilled coffee.
“I want you to come home,” he says. “I need you.”
She pours the coffee into two Co-Op mugs and adds a teaspoon of sugar to Wayne’s. She hands it to him. She sighs. “Do you want to sit out back?”
It was a long roll and slope into gray obscurity. Soon Jane left the trail
and rode into the sage, and presently she dismounted and threw her
bridle. The men did likewise. Then, on foot, they followed her, coming
out at length on the rim of a low escarpment. She passed by several little
ridges of earth to halt before a faintly defined mound. It lay in the shade
of a sweeping sage-brush close to the edge of the promontory; and a rider
could have jumped his horse over it without recognizing a grave.
Alicia looks at her watch and closes the book.
Hugh is still awake, in that soft lucidity just after the morphine kicks in and before it knocks him asleep again. “Why did you stop?” he murmurs.
She reaches out and pulls the dead blooms off the chrysanthemum. “I know what will happen,” she tells him. “Westerns all end the same.”
She sets the book down beside the plant and sweeps the dry flowers into the trash can. “I’m going now,” she says. She lifts the manila envelope from the bedside table, then bends to kiss his papery cheek. “I need to get this into the morning mail.”
Note: Quotes from Zane Grey, Riders of the Purple Sage. Oxford University Press: Walton Street, Oxford UK 0X2 6DP. First published as Oxford Paperback 1995. ISBN: 0-19-282443-0