“Slow down,” I said as Doug cut into the left lane to whiz by an SUV. “I don’t want to die before I have to die.”
Doug kept his eyes on the highway and his foot on the gas. “Take it easy, Annie.”
“I’m sorry,” I said. “But I’m in no rush to get there—”
“Tell me something I don’t already know.”
“—and I hardly slept last night.”
Doug had dropped the bomb on me right after he crawled into bed and switched off the light. “I got a call about the group home,” he said. “They have a spot, but we have to act fast if we want to take it.”
“How fast?” I asked.
“By the end of the week.”
“End of the week!”
“I made an appointment to tour it tomorrow, just you and me.”
“Why not with Johnny?”
“Johnny doesn’t have a say.”
“He’s the one who’ll have to live there.”
“There’s no point in involving him until we commit.”
Doug had turned over and fallen right to sleep, whereas I had spent the night staring at the stripe of moonlight shining through a crack in the blackout curtains, wishing he had not used the word commit.
On the outskirts of the Heights, Doug inched along the narrow streets lined with run-down bungalows. The group home turned out to be that rare sight in Florida: a two-story wooden house with gingerbread trim.
On the porch swing sat the inevitable social worker holding the inevitable clipboard thick with the inevitable paperwork. Her hair was too blond. Her lipstick too red. I longed for a dial to adjust her brightness.
“I’m Cherilyn,” she said. “Come in and I’ll show you around.”
The chintz sofas and biscuit-yellow end tables in the front parlor—as Cherilyn called it—looked like they had been donated from an old folks’ home. A wide arch led to a dining room with a scratched wooden table and mismatched chairs. The stainless-steel appliances in the kitchen, Cherilyn told us, had been updated to accommodate the cook who came in every other day to prepare boxed lunches and re-heatable dinners. The upstairs had been reconfigured so that each of the six residents—ranging in age from 21 to 55—had their own bedroom.
“Our residents take turns with basic household chores, from loading the dishwashing to weeding the vegetable garden,” Cherilyn said.
“Johnny doesn’t like to get his hands dirty,” I said.
Cherilyn frowned. “Our garden fosters community.”
“Johnny’s a bit of a loner.”
Cherilyn frowned even further. “We function as a group here.”
“Well, we—” Doug gave me a warning look as I let the pronoun hang in the air for a moment. “—like that this home is relatively close by so Johnny can come home on weekends.”
“Overnight visits are discouraged,” Cherilyn said. “And we ask—actually, require—you not to visit for the first two weeks to allow our new resident time to settle in.”
“Two weeks!” I said. “Who’ll clean Johnny’s ears?”
“We have a home health aide visit to assist with personal hygiene.”
“But two whole weeks. Couldn’t you make an exception?” I asked.
Cherilyn turned to the back door. “Here comes our house manager.”
I could do without too-bright Cherilyn and her clipboard. But how could I not like this cheerful young man named Mike, who came into the kitchen bearing a pot of curly parsley and who greeted us with a hearty howdy?
Unlike Cherilyn, Mike asked us questions about Johnny—his interests, his tastes in food, his good and bad habits—before explaining his house manager duties: supervising and driving residents, coordinating group activities, overseeing the shopping and cleaning. He was trained in first-aid, CPR, and conflict management.
“Is there a lot of conflict?” I asked.
“Just when it comes to that last slice of pizza.”
For the first time that day, I smiled. “What drew you into this line of work?”
“My brother has Down’s syndrome,” Mike said.
“Oh,” I said. “So you get it.”
Mike laughed. “Yeah, here I get it multiplied by six.”
“Can you tell us how a space here opened up?” Doug asked.
As if on cue, a gray-haired man—collar askew, jaw slack—appeared in the kitchen doorway.
“This is Dick,” Mike said. “He qualifies for senior housing.”
“I don’t want to go to senior housing,” Dick said.
Mike reached into a closet and pulled out a broom. “Your turn to sweep today, Dick.”
“Is.” Mike pointed to the big calendar on the wall marked CHORES. “Wednesdays are your sweep day.”
As Mike cajoled Dick into taking the broom (heigh-ho, heigh-ho, it’s off to work you go), Cherilyn herded us into the parlor, where she handed me—and not Doug—form after form of the usual headache-inducing stuff: Johnny’s medical history, proof of vaccinations, insurance verification, and information from our last two 1040s.
“Fees are assessed on a sliding scale according to your income,” Cherilyn said.
“What about after?” I said.
“After what?” Cherilyn asked.
I turned to Doug.
His Adam’s apple bulged and contracted. “I think what my wife is asking is. . . if something should happen. . . to either one of us. . . would the life insurance payout disqualify us from assistance from the state?”
“I’ll make a note to check into that.” Cherilyn snapped the clip on her board. “Any last questions?”
Doug shook his head. “You got any, Cox?”
Cherilyn gave me a puzzled look. “I thought your name was Ann.”
“It is,” I said.
“But your husband called you—?”
“Cox.” I blushed. “C-O-X.”
“Is that your maiden name?”
“Nickname,” I said. “It’s a long story.”
On the way home, I didn’t have to waste my breath begging Doug to stay within the speed limit. At rush hour, all four northbound lanes of I-275 crawled at forty miles an hour, then thirty, until traffic finally ground to a complete halt.
“Well?” Doug asked.
I flipped down the visor to block the sun. “We function as a group here.”
“Look, I know you dislike social workers as much as I do—”
“We’re Johnny’s group,” I said.
“It’s time he joins another.” Doug paused. “This is the right choice, Cox.”
“As if we have a choice.”
“The right decision, then. For all of us.”
I turned my head out the window. The shoulder of the highway was littered with cigarette butts, blown tires, and billboards advertising medical malpractice lawyers and the latest death-defying roller coaster at Busch Gardens. To the right of the overpass stood a strip mall populated with a pawn shop and a storefront that read, simply, GUNS.
I won’t miss this ugly city a lick, I thought, then squeezed my eyes shut to keep from crying. Because of course I would miss it. I would miss it all.
When I opened my eyes, I saw tears streaming from beneath Doug’s sunglasses. I was shocked. Never once had I seen him cry—not when his parents died, not when Johnny was born and the ob-gyn told us I’m sorry to let you know. . ., and not even when I came home last month and told him, The doctor says I have. . .
He wiped his cheek with the back of his hand. “What’ll I do without you, Cox?”
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I need you on board with this home for Johnny.”
“Oh, Dougie.” I pulled a crumpled Kleenex from my purse. “You have my blessing. And then some.”
By the time we pulled into the driveway, I wanted nothing more than to lie down. “I’m too tired to fix dinner,” I told Doug.
“I’ll pick up pizza.”
“Get the breadsticks for Johnny. And order some salad.”
Inside, I couldn’t summon the energy to make it to the bedroom, so I lay down on the couch. Johnny, who’d been sitting in the den staring at the TV—which wasn’t on—shuffled in. His thick glasses hung low on his nose and his fly was half zipped.
“You’re home,” he said.
I nodded. “Did you miss me?”
I sighed. “Sit down, Johnny.”
Johnny sat in the recliner, his lanky arms and legs sprawled like a starfish.
“Today Dad and I went to look at a group house for you to live in.”
“I live here.”
“But now you’re grown and can live on your own with other boys—men—like you.”
Johnny looked down at his feet. “There’s nobody like me. Except me.”
“True,” I said.
“I live here,” he repeated.
“Wouldn’t you like to have friends to talk to?”
“I talk to you.”
“But I won’t always be here for you.”
“Where would you go?”
Years ago—on the advice of another social worker—we had adopted a rescue dog to help Johnny “open up.” But the beagle bothered Johnny more than it comforted him. Louie barked and drooled and peed on the carpet. He chased squirrels. Howled at the moon. Ran away when Johnny failed to hold on tight to his leash. After one of our neighbors called animal control, I surrendered Louie to the rescue organization.
I thought Johnny had forgotten all about the dog. But now he said, “Louie went somewhere and didn’t come back.”
“That’s right,” I said. “And now. . . what I mean to say, Johnny, is I haven’t been feeling well.”
“It’s not that easy. And it’s important to plan for the future.”
Johnny pushed up his glasses by the lenses, not the bridge. “Where’s Dad?”
“Picking up pizza.”
“I like the breadsticks.”
“Don’t worry,” I said. “Cox took care of it.”
Doug came home with two large pizzas—no arguing over the last piece here—a dozen breadsticks, and a single-serve salad. While he and Johnny decimated an entire sausage and pepperoni pie, I picked at the salad and refrained from nagging them to eat something green for once in their lives. Afterwards I supervised clean-up of the greasy boxes and sauce-stained plates.
Contrary to what I had told Cherilyn, how I came to be called Cox was not a long story.
Years ago, Doug drove us downtown so we could check out the new walkway that ran along the Hillsborough River. Doug kept stopping to read the historic plaques and examine the bronze busts celebrating the achievements of noteworthy Tampa residents. I kept searching for a bathroom. Johnny kept complaining about the heat. Finally, weary of the effort of pretending we were having fun, we plopped down on a bench by a metal bridge that let out long vowel-rich tones—oooooh, eeeeeh, aaaaah–like a singing bowl, every time a car passed over.
Halfway through another oooooh, a racing shell shot out from under the bridge into the wide river, half a dozen boys in crew shirts furiously rowing and one tiny girl sitting in the stern, calling out commands through a megaphone: Power 10! Square up! Down and away!
Johnny pointed. “That’s you.”
“The boat?” I asked.
“The lady shouting.”
Doug laughed. “She’s called the coxswain. She steers the boat. Motivates the crew. Gets them where they’re going.”
After that, Doug started referring to me as “our coxswain.” Cox, for short. As in: Okay, Cox. Whatever you say, Cox. At first it made me bristle. Was I that bossy? I thought of how I spent my days, giving Johnny “clear directives” and doling out honey-do lists to Doug. I didn’t hold a megaphone. But my voice grew louder and clearer with each command: Brush your teeth. Clean your ears. Mow the lawn. Put out the recycling. Dirty dishes belong in the you-know-where because I am not your dishwasher!
I knew I was a nag. But after a while, I got used to being called Cox. I even liked it. I was proud of steering the boat, motivating the crew, and making sure we got where we needed to go. I did it so well that Doug routinely asked me, with a touch of sarcasm, a variation of what he had asked me earlier in the car: What would we do without you, Cox? and I routinely answered, with a touch of snark, You’d survive.
Now, with a touch of terror, I wondered: what would they do—what would I be—without me?
Rita Ciresi is author of the novels Bring Back My Body to Me, Pink Slip, Blue Italian, and Remind Me Again Why I Married You; the story collections Sometimes I Dream in Italian and Mother Rocket; and two award-winning collections of flash fiction, Female Education and Second Wife.