When the nurse tells me to hold the fort it sounds like some kind of threat.
“I have to scoot,” she says.
“Scoot,” I say. “Like now?”
“I won’t be long. A day or two tops.”
There in Henry’s kitchen she fills a pill tray while rattling off what each one does. And what she’s saying is Henry might need some prompting with his medications. Henry, it seems, gave a kidney to his brother and his brother didn’t pull through.
I follow the nurse to the study where Henry is curled on a couch, sleeping. We’re met with an assortment of hospital supplies and take-out food containers. As she lifts Henry’s bandage, the light coming through the blinds brings me to the staples on his lower back. They’re horseshoe in shape. The skin puckers just so.
“What am I looking at?” I say.
She applies an ointment that smells strangely like asphalt and honey.
“Oh sweetie, that’s love.”
Out by her car, beach sand scatters into the dune grass in shhh titch shhh chatter.
I ask the nurse how he’s doing. I’m thinking about Henry, his brother, my qualifications.
“He’ll be up and at ’em in no time,” she says. “Besides, he could use a familiar face.”
“No,” I say, in a voice that snaps her head. “Like how’s he doing?”
Holding her version of a medical kit—a Wonder Woman lunchbox with gauze and tape, she takes one of those annoyed pauses when confronted by an idiot.
“Seriously. Try to imagine,” I say. “Put yourself in Henry’s situation.”
“Being Henry,” she says. “I’m feeling like I just lost my brother.”
From her glove compartment the nurse hands me a Grief Share pamphlet. It’s a support group that meets in this furniture superstore turned church in Portland by the city dump. In contrast, the cover has a bright sun floating slightly above a river near the mouth of the sea. “Henry should read that.”
I have the urge to run.
“Heck, we all should,” she says.
She taps the horn, leaves.
On my way back inside I notice a white bed sheet nailed against the side of the house. Welcome Home, Henry is written in tall, hand-painted letters. His own letters. It flaps against the cedar shingles. Underneath the stilts, a seagull is trying to drag one of Henry’s buoys towards shore.
I throw a rock in its direction.
As for the Henry I know, he teaches shop at the high school and sells chairs on the side. I had him for Advanced Wood senior year then went to work in his shed after graduation. This was last summer. We made rockers, high backs, toddlers—custom orders, and for the past month at college that’s what I thought about—those chairs. But that’s just the half of it. The other half is how Henry let me crash in his guestroom for a few weeks when I was on the outs with my mother. This was his idea. He also knew about our problems: what I perceived to be Babs’ careless dating habits and what she suspected was my reckless habit of copping her Valium.
Honestly, Henry came through big time.
So to make a long story short, I get this call from Babs a week ago, while I was in college up in Burlington, where she tells me about Henry’s situation. Why he didn’t say anything last summer is a mystery. I mean, a kidney? A brother? If that wasn’t enough she also says there’s some relationship building we needed to do. Her and me. Fact is, if this were anyone other than Henry the last thing on my mind would be this place. So maybe coming back is my attempt at thanks, or no thanks.
For now, I’m hanging with Henry.
Inside I find Henry leafing through the latest LL Bean catalog. He’s rolling his eyes at what they call a “classic” Adirondack, the obvious lack of attention to fine detail is not lost. Keep in mind Henry’s about my mother’s age, but acts like FDR is currently president. For example he doesn’t own a car or electric tools and uses a rotary phone when he’s not writing letters. The record player in the corner plays Woody Guthrie 78s nonstop.
Eventually I ask Henry about the sheet. “That’s quite a banner, Henry. What gives?”
He shrugs. “Guess I wanted something to come home to.”
After dinner I tell Henry I didn’t know he had a brother.
He points at a Portland Press Herald newspaper on the coffee table: June 7, 1959.
On the front is a picture of Henry and his brother, Lee, and the two of them are flat on their backs on a track mat. There’s a high pole lying in the foreground. Henry informs me this was shot at the end of a meet. Both have these Rockabilly cuts with wide grins but you can’t tell they’re brothers —they’re that different looking. Turns out they co-captained track and took the state pole-vault championship. It could have been a Norman Rockwell cover to an old Saturday Evening Post. The caption under the picture reads, “Taking a Run at the Sun.”
“We tied,” Henry says. “What are the chances?”
He tells me Lee left home after going heart-first for this girl. Never called, never wrote. Not Henry, not anyone. That’s the last he knew of Lee until this kidney thing. In the possibility of his imagination, however, Henry did know this: that love isn’t always about reason.
As Henry sleeps I duck out for my mother’s house with blueprints of a rocking chair I’ve been drafting in my spare time between classes. Something I began to sketch last summer but only recently finished once I figured out how to attach a proper footrest. This was key. In a house fit to her weak condition—a plastic chair for the bath, a Craftmatic in the bedroom—having proper furniture in the living room was the missing piece.
When I get to my mother’s house, this is what I see through the window off the front porch: my mother padding across the kitchen floor with a dinner plate. She’s smiling. On her best china is a thick steak, potatoes with greens. Almost effortlessly she makes her way to a table next to the couch. She wears a cardigan and pleated skirt and her eyes are fresh in blue shadow. Her perfume, I imagine, is overdone. Then I make out the pair of brown wingtips next to the table. There is a deep voice mixed with the laugh track coming from the television. Last I knew my mother was dating a white-collar type and, no doubt, this is who was taking her to those white tablecloth lunches she raved about. A real moneyman. In a recent letter she let me know that this guy was different. He is just solid, she wrote. On the first go through I thought she wrote He is just sad.
Under a Hunter’s moon I walk back to Henry’s.
At the breakfast table I attempt to change Henry’s dressing for the first time. He leans into his cigarette while turning the pages of a book on dreams and tells me basements represent fear. Reluctantly, the gauze gives way. I carefully move my finger across the thick ridge of skin. It’s stunning. Like a broken tooth.
“It’s official,” he says. “I have a case of the night shoes.”
Cutting tape and gauze, I pause. For a moment I suspect this is about my evening recon.
“This dream business is giving me the heebie-jeebies.” Lighting Old Gold after Old Gold, Henry goes on to explain how he’s been finding sand everywhere. On the floors and carpet, in the shower, sinks, toilet, even in his sheets.
“You do live on a beach, Henry,” I say, applying a cleaning wipe to his sutures.
“Fine. But figure me this, Sherlock.” He holds up his hands. They’re cut, marked by red lines as if he ran them across a cheese grater. These days the first thing he looks for are open windows and doors, the next obvious—closets, under beds. Perhaps he’s thinking there’s an intruder. The only explanation he can come up with is sleepwalking. And what with his dreams being so real. According to Henry, somewhere in the middle of last night he gets up and goes to the kitchen for a glass of water. Light is coming through the windows full blast. “You could read a book,” he says. At first he thinks it’s daybreak; he can hear noises below. Henry proceeds to tell me how he goes outside with a flashlight and follows underneath the house to where this sound is coming from. Eventually he finds a deer. It’s not a fawn but not that big either. Henry can see the thing is trapped between a support beam and the sandbags he keeps for floods. All he smells is what he can only describe as fear. “It’s ok,” he says, gesturing slowly to the deer, which has its snout cocked in the air. “It’s ok, really.” But when Henry tries to take a step forward, the thing begins to bang its head against the floor joist. Knock, knock, knock until, like that, “She folds.”
After placing the last strip on the gauze, I let Henry’s shirt fall over the new dressing.
Henry shrugs. “I didn’t feel a thing.” The smoke from his cigarette now leaks out of the side of Henry’s mouth. Earlier he was fine, but after he got into the pillbox I noticed his lower lip go lazy.
To speed his recovery, I have my own thoughts. Wean Henry off his medication.
Funny how painkillers work. When you’re on them you wonder why you weren’t on them. Always. There’s a warm rush that starts in your abdomen, climbing up the back of the head to then settle behind the eyes. From here the light of the world turns ever so soft and warm in a gorgeous flood. So much so that tomorrow you will ask for more. For a select few, however, no amount of drugs will ever overcome the bruises of loss. You simply swallow without benefit. Not me. This is why I have come to taking Henry’s meds, and he is none the wiser.
Out on his deck we lounge in parkas and sunglasses.
Between doses, I show Henry the sketch of my mother’s rocker.
“What are we looking at?” Henry asks.
“A Windsor,” I say.
“That’s a Windsor?”
“Yeah. See how the…”
“Just pulling you, Jackson. That’s a start, kid.”
There in the sun, I realize this: Henry always had a comeback, an answer. In fact he was teacher of the year so many times they quit giving out the award. It’s obvious to everyone why. He actually gives a shit how you’re doing. Show up to class with a heavy problem and he’ll tell you about someone else in the exact same strait. Really, it’s uncanny. After you tell him how your life sucks and why, he’ll point out some kid like you, full of promise and good intentions, but with a similar issue. Always they make it through, he adds. And your story is the same.
In the end you believe.
You believe knowing he probably made it up, and still you believe.
Last summer, Henry’s work shed was nothing but hot and humid. The glue in the joints took forever to dry; the sawdust caked in the folds behind your ears. We’d buy bags of ice and with a hollowed out pen we take turns drinking. On Fridays, or whenever we finished a project, there was beer from his refrigerator. A job well done never tasted so good.
Again, last summer, when Babs did eventually come round with the last of my things, Henry wanted to know if she was seeing anyone. Or, as he put it, “Now Jacko, it’s no business of mine asking and I have no intentions of getting in the way…but your mother. She strikes me as together.”
Together? Here’s a woman who can’t seem to get out of her nightgown most days.
“You can do better, Henry.” I said.
“Maybe. And maybe I could say you can do better by her.”
About a week later Henry brought my mother back to his house via taxi. He didn’t tell me about their plans or where they were going yet wanted my approval even after I said she’s the easy type. That was his only want. That I sign off.
With Babs holding daisies in his kitchen, beaming, Henry proceeded to hand me a gift box, saying, “It’s nothing much.”
Inside the box was a cordless sander. This from the man who had us hand-rub each rail, spindle, arm, arm support, and stretcher from rough down to fine grit, in that easy bake oven of his.
If my mother didn’t point out that I should probably thank Henry, I probably wouldn’t have.
Columbus Day. From inside the work shed I can see ocean and surf is pure white. Clamps and vices hang overhead on used meat hooks. On the other side of town there’s a slaughterhouse. In front, there is shrubbery done in the shape of cows and pigs, which make cars slow down, but never pass through the gates. Henry built stalls in there when he was desperate for money and said that’s how he got the idea to hang chair parts in order to save space.
Overhead, a piece of oak looks like a hind leg.
Dear, old Henry. Horseshoe cut or not, he’s buzzing about while we work on my mother’s rocking chair. As we bring the supports together he comes back to telling me about his dream book, how his dream from the night before all adds up. What Henry focuses on, there in the dream, are feet. He’s wearing cleats and at first he’s just walking on grass. Then his stride opens up. Grass gives way to a hard surface and then he’s lifted. The next thing he knows he’s looking up at the sky.
“You’re pole-vaulting,” I say.
“Or getting ready to meet Lee.” Henry taps a leg into the seat with a mallet while I take a cloth to the glue spill. We place the chair legs into an iron claw and move to the back supports. While we do, I learn how Lee practiced the pole vault with his eyes closed. To feel the act of flight. And although Lee was younger by a grade, he was always trying to close the gap on his older brother. Before school they trained in their backyard taking turns holding a broom over pillows. Henry would count off as Lee walked backwards to a spot in the lawn and then Lee would pull a bandana over his eyes. As Lee approached the mat Henry guided him—place, right, push.
“Maybe there was something I could’ve done to keep Lee from leaving,” he says.
“Maybe,” I say. “Maybe not.”
Outside the beach is covered in foam and seaweed.
“Then again I’ve never been in love, like that. What do I know?”
Henry describes how they grew up on the same music, wore the same clothes. He tells me his brother is the guy he always brought up in shop class. That guy.
This blows me away.
And even though I was off about Henry’s lessons, there’s a thing or two I need to work on.
When the nurse walks into the shed, Henry and I are smoking cigarettes and he’s telling me a joke about a redneck, a rabbi, and a turkey baster. The backrest on my mother’s rocker is glued to the seat, ready for a light stain. It hangs from a steel hook.
The nurse asks what we’re doing.
Henry answers, “Jackson and I are making up for lost time.”
What Henry said,” I say.
Perhaps it’s because the nurse doesn’t look up at the steel hooks or the fact that she doesn’t even comment on the chair that gets to me. Or maybe it’s because she’s holding her car keys while checking on Henry’s bandage that I realize, to her, Henry is just another gig.
Then again, I’m in the rush of Henry and his painkillers.
“Onward and upward,” she says.
Considering her words, I take out the pamphlet she gave the other day—the one on loss.
“Don’t think we need this anymore,” I say.
Against nurse’s orders Henry carries the rocker while I lug the oak footrest attachment in the soft shoulder leading to my mother’s house. It’s dark, but not that dark. A thin cloud only slightly dims.
When we get to the house I tell Henry to wait in the street.
Through the glass of the front entrance I can see my mother. When I press my ear to door I hear what sounds like an easy listening classic and then notice she’s alone, waltzing in the kitchen. I want to call it sad, but that’s not accurate. It’s only what is—our history on full display. Like the ceiling fan stained from cigarettes and cooking smoke, like the cabinet off its hinge, like the linoleum that curls at the baseboard. I think I should try to fix these things.
Stace Budzko has been published and/or anthologized in New Micro, Fiction Attic Press, Southeast Review, New World Writing, Necessary Fiction, Hint Fiction, Press 53, PANK, Night Train, The Collagist, Field Guide to Flash Fiction, Brevity & Echo, Flash Fiction Forward and elsewhere. Audio, art, and screen adaptations of his work have received numerous awards and showcases. At present he’s building a house.