“Baby, we need you. Your dad needs to be suctioned.”
I blasted through the last of the pipe.
Dad didn’t remember what happened. All we knew is that the ambulance, the cops and the fire truck were there, each with their own report. They all agreed that he got hit by a car while he was walking across the street.
“I was thinking of building an outhouse,” Dad was able to whisper hoarsely over and over when he first arrived home from the hospital. He’d lost most of his short- term memory, but remembered growing up on a farm. He never spoke of his family or the animals, just the outhouse.
“That would be great,” I continued to answer.
Dad had a feeding tube and a trach. He’d been in the hospital and rehab for over two months and now he was home set up in a hospital bed. The nurse had demonstrated the entire procedure of how to clean out a trach while my mom had run out crying. So, whenever it was needed, mom’s voice would soften and she’d whisper down to me that dad needed help. I’d extinguish the pipe, turn off the TV and head upstairs. It was a natural deal for me. I put on some music and pulled out the sterilized gloves and tube and got at it. Dad gurgled from his trach. I needed to get that shit out. It took a few tries, but I was always satisfied when he raised his eyebrow. That meant we’d conquered the phlegm for a few hours.
Mom and Dad used to scream at me to get a fucking job before dad got hit. The basement was my territory. I’d hear their hostile shoes smacking down the steps and one or the other would rage on me for a while to get on with my life.
Since Dad had his accident, they were both thankful I was home. I still smoked the same amount of weed. But now, Mom made French toast for me whenever I got up and Dad had forgotten that I was an underachiever.
I tugged on my hair as I brought my face to my knees for a second. “I’m coming, mother dear,” I called. I put the pipe on the table and headed upstairs.
“You stink,” mom said, as she fanned her hand across her face. She shook her head. “Make sure you wash your hands before you touch dad. He may be suffocating.” She sucked in a breath, putting her fingertips to her lips for a second, as if she were pressing back nausea. Eyes wide open, she turned and strode out of the bedroom, heels clacking faster as she hit the threshold.
Dad’s face was red. Sweat glistened on his upper lip as he tried to catch a breath.
“It’s okay, Dad,” I whispered. “I got this.” As I worked on getting the phlegm out, I kept talking. “I think an outhouse would be damn cool, dad. It would be a great place to sit and smoke, stare out at the stars.” I smiled at him and bent to gather the used cleaning equipment as Dad clutched my hand and whispered, “You’re a little soft in the head, kid. An outhouse is for pooping, not staring at the stars.” He raised an eyebrow at me.
I raised an eyebrow back. “Would you rather James do this? Oh, wait, he can’t because he moved thousands of miles away to be a successful engineer. I’m all you have left because Mom doesn’t even want to deal with this. I’m tired of this bullshit.”
Dad smiled and nodded his head. He rasped, “Yes, that’s right, shit.”
I left all the empty bottles and suction units on the nightstand and walked out of the room.
I grabbed my weed and left the house. It would have been nice to have an outhouse to sit in.
The night was still and haunted like the old UFO flicks I’d been watching all week –slow, silent, but ready to explode with lights and elongated creatures with massive heads. I walked fast until I got to the school fence and then hopped it and walked over and sat down on the grass, smack in the center of the track. It felt like the right spot for my brain. Big circle. No way out. Let the aliens come and get me.
James had been a track star. I hated sports, but even so I’d watched my big brother run around this track a thousand times. At the end of any race, he’d always come over to me and ruffle my hair, “How’s that, Butterball? You proud or what?” I never did develop any muscles, just got taller with a beer belly. It’d been so long since he’d come home. Maybe I’d be taller than James by now.
I had one hit of Heavenly Blue in my wallet and I put it on my tongue, smoked some more weed, and then fell sideways onto the cool grass and onto my back, thinking of mom. She’d probably vomited two or three times by now. She’d be crying, maybe screaming. What had she ever done? Three males who didn’t take care of her, didn’t even try to be close to her. She was right. I stank. We all stank.
Just when I felt the depth charge rolling toward me and the explosion coming on from deep in my brain, I thought leaving them like that was a bad idea and now I’m about to move into the really fucked up zone. I spread my arms and legs out like a corpse. All my limbs felt useless, heavy metal pipes holding long tubes of pulsing blood. I was pretty sure it would be impossible to stand up. Why had I dropped that shit?
Of course then came the peak of my greatest regret and shame. My cell phone rang.
“Butterball,” a deep voice said in a manly way. I could see a little butterball with eyes.
“Yeah,” I said.
“Where are you?” my brother asked from his comfy nook in the Valley of Mercenaries. “Mom called. She’s really upset.”
“I am at the track behind the school.” I snorted. “Track and field. I love to lay in the field. So where’s my trophy?”
“You’re stoned. What a surprise.”
I could hear him light a cigarette, inhale, wait for me to shape up. I had no Shape now and from my perspective on the ground there was nothing but Up.
His deep voice finally revved again, disembodied, friendly, floating down toward me from the dead sky sparklings. What’s all this shit about stars? They don’t bring your brother back home. They don’t make your dad walk again. They don’t make your mother happy. You can’t even open the basement door with a star. You push it open with your foot or your elbow.
“Piper and I are going to have another kid. I don’t know how Annie will take it. She’s the star here.”
“Nice,” I said. “Nice. Can she open the basement door?”
“She can.” He laughed. “She’s seven.”
“Like you when I was born. How’d you like getting a baby brother?”
I could hear him breathing. “I think I hated you,” he said. “For a while anyway.”
“You never came back.”
“Once the new baby’s here, we’ll come. I told Mom. She’ll want to see it.”
I didn’t care about any new baby. I was the baby. Didn’t anybody remember that?
His disembodied voice continued. “We’ll give you some relief. You’ll get a break. You and I, we’ll listen to music. You can get me stoned, like that one time, remember? You were like twelve, I think, and I was home from college. I was probably nineteen. You looked so cute with that pipe in your mouth, those long twiggy fingers of yours playing it like a sax, and we just kept laughing…”
“And Dad stormed in to your bedroom and threatened to beat the shit out of you.”
“He did,” James said. “He did indeed. You had to save me.”
I’d clawed at Dad’s back, tried to pull him off James. He fell over backwards on top of me and then somehow everybody was laughing. Dad, me and James and the world seemed just perfect.
There was a long pause. James said, “Look, I’m sorry. You deserve better. I think about Annie being a big sister. She’s gonna be so good at that. I really wasn’t any good. Listen. Go help Mom. She needs you to go home.”
“I’m fucked. I dropped acid.”
He didn’t say anything. I could hear him take a swig of beer. I thought okay, now he’s really disgusted with me. But then he said in a quieter voice, “Go on home. Go sleep in your old room. Don’t go down to the basement and sit there like a toad.”
I got the giggles. “A butterball who becomes a toad?”
“I’ll book a flight. I promise. I didn’t understand until Mom called tonight. I didn’t get the scene, how it is. Now go home.”
I stood up and nodded at the dark. “Dad wants an outhouse.”
“Maybe with a hole like a skylight above so you can see the planets,” I said.
“For sure,” James said, humoring me. We said goodbye.
I looked up at the sky where the stars hid out, where other beings might live. He’d come back and see us this time. A star couldn’t promise, but James could. He’d never broken a promise before, not that I remembered anyway.
I lay back down on the grass and watched the stars for a while. All of a sudden I realized they weren’t random anymore. The stars were fastening together to form words. The aliens had set up a morse code and were trying to tell me something.
. house the left and weed my grabbed I. thought I, while little a for here of out hell the get gotta I
. room the of out walked and nightstand the on units suction and bottles empty the all left I”. bullshit this of tired I’m. hit got you before you with deal to want even didn’t She. you with deal to want even doesn’t Mom because left have you all I’m. this from away get could he so just engineer successful a be to away miles of thousands moved he because can’t he, no, Oh? this do James rather you Would? hours few every—tube a through you fed we that, sorry I’m—ate you that crap of bits with filled phlegm disgusting this cleaning on work person soft a Would”. me at eyebrow an raised He”? What”. soft You’re wobbly, faint a: message the up held and hip the on me tapped Dad
. pad a on something write to hand better his with pencil a up picked Dad as equipment cleaning used the gather to bent and him at smiled I, weed with Benevolent”. it do couldn’t I. man, Whatever? outside poop to manlier it Is. inside bathroom good perfectly a have We. outhouse an
build to wanted you why know don’t I”. talking kept I, out phlegm the getting on worked I As“. this got I”. whispered I “, Dad, okay “It’s”. house cold a in baby asthmatic an like gurgled He. breath a catch to tried he as lip upper his on glistening sweat; red was face Dad’s
. threshold the hit she as faster clacking heels, bedroom the of out strode and turned she, open wide Eyes. nausea back pressing were she if as, second a for lips her to fingertips her putting, breath a in sucked She”…not that’s but, bed the of instead wheelchair the in him putting by better it make to tried I. called I times few first the me hear didn’t You. suffocating be may He. up Hurry. Dad on work to get you before hands your wash you sure Make”. head her shook She. said Mom “, stink You”
. upstairs headed and table the on pipe the put I. be to me wanted they guy the mocking, voice my twisting, called I”, Dear Mother, coming I’m”. second a for knees my to face my brought I as hair my on tugged I
. underachiever an was I that forgotten had Dad and up got I whenever me for toast French made Mom, now but
. weed of amount same the smoked still I. home was I thankful both were they, accident his had Dad Since
. life my with on get to while a for me on rage would other the or one and steps the down smacking shoes hostile their hear my basement happened this before job fucking a get to me at scream to used Dad and Mom
answered had I “,great be would That”
said once had dad “, outhouse an building of thinking was I”
it to went never I. me to came Travel. exist didn’t that basement my in station train a at platform a up set had someone if as was It. destination no had I.
Damn! I waited for more of the words to appear, but the stars no longer attached themselves into letters. I waited for aliens, but the night just became colder. I got up. I hadn’t written it down, but a message had blasted through the stars.
The house was dark when I finally found my way back.
I went around the house to the shed. I studied the stars again before I found the perfect place to dig. I got the shovel out and lodged it deep into the dirt with my boot. This was the spot.
By tomorrow morning dad would be pissing and shitting outside.
This month’s contributors to Exquisite Quartet:
Angelle Scott is a Writing Center instructional assistant and an instructor of English at Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana. She is a graduate of the University of New Orleans. She has had work published in Callaloo, Fourteen Hills, fwriction:review, Flywheel Magazine, Pure Slush, and Journal of College Writing, among other publications.
Joseph A. W. Quintela writes. Poems. Stories. On Post-its. Walls. Envelopes. Cocktail napkins. Twitter. Anything he gets his hands on, really. His last chapbook, This is not Poetry. #poetry, was published by The Red Ceilings Press. Other work has appeared in The Collagist, ABJECTIVE, GUD, Bartleby Snopes, and Existere. As the senior editor at Deadly Chaps Press, he publishes both an annual series of chapbooks and the weekly eReview, Short, Fast, and Deadly. His work at Sarah Lawrence College revolves around integrating the disparate yet rapidly dovetailing fields of Conceptual Poetry and Eco-Criticism. As such, he is an acolyte of intra-action, hash tags, and the Oxford comma. (www.josephquintela.com)
Andrea Carlisle lives in a houseboat in Portland, Oregon. Her downstairs neighbors are muskrats and otters; her upstairs neighbors are eagles and blue herons – a living situation that would make any writer’s imagination swim night and day in pure pleasure. Her fiction, essays, and poetry have appeared in both print and online journals, including J Journal: New Writing on Justice, Melusine, Calyx, Willow Springs, Northwest Review, So to Speak, Funny Times, YB Poetry, and more. Her poem, Emily Dickinson’s To-Do List, has appeared in three anthologies and will be included in the 10th edition of Literature and the Writing Process (Pearson). She has received various awards for fiction, nonfiction, and film work. Her blog about taking care of her elderly mother, Go Ask Alice…When She’s 94, can be found at www.andreacarlisle.com.
Meg Tuite writing has appeared in numerous journals including Berkeley Fiction Review, Epiphany, JMWW, One, the Journal, Monkeybicycle and Boston Literary Magazine. She has been nominated several times for the Pushcart Prize. She is the fiction editor of The Santa Fe Literary Review and Connotation Press. Her novel Domestic Apparition (2011) is available through San Francisco Bay Press and her chapbook, Disparate Pathos, is available (2012) through Monkey Puzzle Press. Her blog: http://megtuite.wordpress.com.