Gene Bostick was putting down pine-straw in the flower-beds in front of the administration building when Mr. Shiver, his boss at the Fletcherville College Physical Plant, squealed up in the peeling white golf cart with the rake sticking up like an antennae behind the driver’s seat.
“Gene, you need to call your mother. Get in!”
Gene stood up in the row of rose bushes he was pruning with the hand clippers. He wore jeans and a Dickies shirt, which he always kept tucked in no matter how dirty the work got. He was a big fellow, and the zero on his bathroom scales went around twice and a little more when he stepped on it each morning after—always after—brushing his teeth, because that’s when his daddy had done it. Gene’s daddy was a big silent man who smiled only two or three times that Gene could remember. It was the summer Gene took the job his daddy recommended on the grounds crew at the Physical Plant that he grew into his size, and when school took back in, the boys who used to push him around behind the cafeteria and ask him how big Biggie Small’s big black ass was left him alone. Gene was twenty-five now, and he hadn’t been to school since they gave him the paper that said he was through with all that. When he climbed in the golf cart next to Mr. Shiver, Mr. Shiver’s side raised up so now he was taller than Gene.
They rode without a word to Mr. Shiver’s office, a small, dusty room with a grimy window in the wall of a garage underneath the gym. The garage smelled of fertilizer and two-cycle engine oil. Gene didn’t like untidiness. Mr. Shiver’s office was his own business, but Gene swept the garage floor with the push broom and picked up the tool room behind Tiny and the others every afternoon before he left, just as he washed his truck every Saturday whether it rained or not.
Gene followed Mr. Shiver into the office. Brenda the secretary gave him a concerned smile. Mr. Shiver’s desk was piled with old sprinkler parts, the greasy pull-cord housing of a gas-powered blower, and other odds and ends of equipment he was getting around to fixing. In the middle of the pile, looking like something else that needed fixing, was the phone. Mr. Shiver looked to Gene like he might be going to say something to him but couldn’t think what it was and didn’t know why he had come in there. He hitched up his pants with one thumb through a big ring of keys that had hung there so long, he once told Gene, he didn’t know what half of them went to anymore. Mr. Shiver backed out of the office, closing the door behind him with a click like he was leaving a room where someone was sleeping.
“Gene, do you need me to dial the number?” Brenda asked.
“I got it,” Gene said. He picked up the phone, and the dirty yellow light on the base came on, and he punched the number that hung like a tool on a nail in his head.
Gene’s mother was the sort who always seemed to be trying not to cry, so he was used to her voice shaking, but when she told him to come to the hospital right away, he tossed the receiver into the cradle without saying goodbye.
“I’ve got to go,” he told Brenda, and headed for the door.
“Tell your mother I’ll pray for her,” Brenda murmured.
Gene did not answer. People were always praying for his mother.
He did not like to touch the greasy doorknob and usually kept his work gloves on for that purpose if he had to go in there, but now he didn’t think about the gloves that were in his hip pocket. He turned the knob and went out the garage and across the parking lot to where his truck was backed into the same space he always parked it, on the end of the row facing the side of the gym, under a crape myrtle with its leaves all yellow because it was October.
Just then a man Gene recognized who worked in the payroll department inYon Hall was getting out of a green Corolla that was so faded you could hardly tell it was green anymore. He carried a creased, brown briefcase. Gene had gotten the jumper cables and jumped his car off once when the battery was dead.
“Hey, Gene, you doing all right?” the man asked, slamming his door.
“Just Tuesday,” Gene answered, and climbed into his truck.
The Aucilla County Hospital was four red-lights down 84 going away from town. Gene turned off the highway into the Emergency Room entrance and drove around to the back of the hospital where he knew the ambulances parked. He knew this because he had ridden in one once.
He had crawled under the house after Della’s puppy when it yelped. Della had a dog, but Gene’s mother said he was too little to take care of one, so he had taken care of Della’s when nobody was looking, until the copperhead killed it. He had smashed the snake’s head with a brick, but not before it struck and bit him in the flap of skin right between his thumb and first finger. He came in the house with his hand on fire and swelled up so fat he couldn’t close his fist. Even though it was Saturday and past noon, his mother was asleep. Della punched the buttons for 911.
After that, whenever his mother hugged him, she hugged him hard, and he knew that his daddy, if he had been the kind who hugged, would have hugged him hard, too. Instead, he began taking Gene with him on his landscaping and pasture-mowing jobs. Gene knew his daddy had loved him before the snake bit him, but somehow they hadn’t gee-hawed until just then. That summer, he showed Gene how to lay pines-straw, put down fertilizer, and, when he was a little older, how to run the tractor, making sure it was full of gas before going out on a job, and how to take care of the tools and the power equipment. He spent the whole day Gene turned fourteen teaching him how to change out the blade on the bushhog. Now Gene could run any piece of equipment and take care of it as good as his daddy could. Better even. Because he could see dirt and grime in places his daddy didn’t notice and he had patience his daddy didn’t have.
He took to using some of his daddy’s expressions, and sometimes mixed them with other things that he had heard or remembered that had stuck with him. Locking up his truck, Gene squinted at the new numbers for the price of gasoline on the sign sticking up through the trees over by the highway side of the hospital. He shook his head walking to the emergency room door.
“Can’t beat Santa in a reindeer game!”
Inside the hospital, a man with yellow hair was sitting behind a glass counter in the wall. He was on the phone, so Gene didn’t fool with him. He looked down one end of the hall and saw where it opened up into a room that looked like a big, empty ice-tray. There were cubicles, all with people talking on the phone. He went the other way. He passed through some swinging doors, and there was his mother standing talking to the doctor. Gene went and put his big arm around her and stood there and listened to the doctor, a skinny boy not much older than he was, tell his mother what was wrong with his daddy.
It was all about pan-creases and Keno and cancer. Gene knew about Keno. Tiny and some of the guys at work played it on a card with numbers you scratched at the gas station every payday. He knew about cancer too. It tried to kill you, like a snake. One had got inside his grandmother. She had been a stout woman, who wore her white hair always tied up in a neat bun except at night. She had been ticky about cleanliness (she cleaned her house and even the bathroom every day, whether it needed it or not) and she never got sick until the cancer got her. The year he started getting up and going to work instead of school, Gene had stayed with her at night at her house across town. He had slept on the floor by her bed because she wandered around the house at night and had fallen. He had done that until she died, which took a long time. He remembered how she had whittled down to nothing and stopped wearing clean clothes or even bathing at the end. She had been the one to teach him how to run the washing machine, to put the colors in together on cold, and how to iron and starch his shirts and make the creases stay in his pants.
Gene watched his mother’s face as she asked the doctor a question, and while the doctor stammered around for an answer, her chin trembled and twisted. After the doctor was gone, she stared at the sign on the door across the hall that said Men. Her face was still screwed up.
“Com-mere,” he said to his mother, and held her close to him and squeezed her as hard as he dared. He could feel the tiny, hard place inside her in the space between his chest and her backbone. It was not as big as it used to be, when he first noticed it, after she had taken him to see the test doctor before he started school—after that she was either crying or asleep—but it was still there. Sometimes Gene thought he remembered a time before that, before Della came along, when he and his mother stayed home all day and played and laughed all the time. But the older he got, the more he thought he had dreamed that.
The doctor came back and said his daddy was asleep and wouldn’t wake up for awhile. “I don’t know what I’ll do,” his mother murmured, shaking her head.
Gene thought a minute. “Call Della,” he told her.
“But Della’s studying for her P-CAP,” his mother replied. She seemed to Gene to be talking to someone beside him. “She can’t drop everything and come down here.”
Gene grimaced the way his daddy would have if he had been there in the hall and heard his mother say that, with him, Gene, in the hospital bed instead. There’s always a crack with somebody’s “but” in it when it comes to getting anything done, he thought.
“Do it right now.”
After a while Gene could tell he was getting on his mother’s nerves, even though he wasn’t asking her any questions about his daddy or what time Della said she would get there, and since the grounds crew had already knocked off for the day, he went home.
It was the house in town his grandmother had lived in, a small, wood frame house with a backyard that bumped up against the parking lot of the Pizza Hut. After she died, he and his daddy and some of the men his mother didn’t like his daddy doing business with put on a new roof, tore out the old carpet and linoleum, and sanded and shellacked and polished the hardwood floors underneath. After that his mother got interested and picked out some paint for the walls. She also bought curtains and lampshades and new sheets and a bedspread for the two small bedrooms. Once or twice while she was painting, Gene saw his mother looking at him, and at his daddy, and smiling.
His daddy said he was fixing it up to rent for cigarette money, but late one afternoon as they were sitting on the back porch, tired and dusty, his daddy smoking a cigarette and drinking a beer while Gene was drinking a Mr. Pibb, his daddy pointed toward the Pizza Hut:
“What kind of shrubbery you want between you and that parking lot back yonder?”
Gene took a long, slow look around the yard as though he had known all along:
“I’m gonna put red-top back there. Then I’m gonna go after that shaggy monkey-grass yonder by the azaleas with the weed-whacker. I’ll re-seed all that over there under the pin-oak with Rebel III.”
That was one other time he remembered his daddy grinning.
Walking into the house now, Gene reached out to touch the beaded snake he had hung from the window-shade over the front door after Della went away to college in another town. Della had made it and given it to him for a present a long time ago, when he came home from the hospital after the snakebite. Neither he nor his daddy could understand why she couldn’t go to the college right there in Fletcherville.
They used to have a lot of fun playing together, him and Della. They played Rambo. She was quicker, and could beat him wrestling, and she wasn’t afraid of anybody. When the boys at school used to aggravate him in front of her, she would pick up a rock, and they would run. He never got mad with her because his daddy called her his little darling and read her two bed-time stories and let her tickle him as much as she wanted. The only way she could get a rise out of Gene was to chase him around the yard and try to kiss him. Sometimes Della would chase their daddy around the house, and he would let her catch him and kiss him over and over on the face, while he pretended to be fighting her off. Gene sometimes used to wish he could do that, but he knew boys didn’t kiss their daddies the way girls did.
But there were some things that only he could do with their daddy. Like going with him on jobs mowing pastures and running the tractor. He remembered the time Della begged their daddy to teach her how to drive the tractor.
“That’s no job for a young lady to be learning to do,” he told her. She looked at him like he had hit her in a place you never hit a girl, not even in fun.
There were other things you never did to a girl, either. When Gene was ten, he and Della had started playing a game Della knew about where they went behind the tractor shed and Della, who was eight, pulled down her shorts and told him to pull down his. Then she studied his tallywhacker and he studied where hers was supposed to be.
One day his mother caught them back there with their pants down, and when Gene’s daddy came home that evening he got a whipping. When Della didn’t get a whipping, she stuck out her tongue at him, and that seemed to confirm the difference from her he had always felt and had finally seen there between her legs, a difference that began to stretch out like a rubber band between them: Della learned to tie her shoes before he did and could read any book and do things with numbers that made Gene‘s head dizzy like when they used to jump off the merry-go-round while it was still moving. He knew that it would always be different between them, the same way a squirrel could climb a tree but a dog could not. He grew bigger—he could loosen any rusty bolt on any broken-down piece of equipment Mr. Shiver and even Tiny, who had played football at his school, gave up on—and Della grew smarter. Della scampered out of high school right on to college. He was sad when she told them she was going away to another town for college, but it was only for four years, his mother told him. Gene wasn’t sure, but he thought he already counted three Christmases when Della had come home and then gone right back to her college.
Then there was that last one when she had come home with a boy who was driving her car when they got out. His shirt-tail was hanging down outside his pants, and his hair looked like a white tuft of crabgrass growing out of the top of his head. He didn’t even open the car door for Della. Whenever they were standing together, she hung on to him like she was afraid he was going to get away. They talked to one another with words that didn’t make any sense. The boy said he was jonesing to split and then took off in Della’s car after dinner. A few minutes later their daddy came out of the house with Della and found Gene hosing down the back of the truck.
“Drive, Gene,” he said. He was already pushing Della into the truck. Gene drove while their daddy told Della, who sat between them, smiling, that he had raised her better than to give herself away with both hands to a boy who looked like he fell off the back of a trash-truck in Atlanta. That’s when she told him she didn’t have to come home at all. And that was when their daddy backhanded her, and would have done it again if Gene hadn’t reached across and grabbed hold of him by his thick wrist.
“Uh-uh, Daddy!” Della never stopped smiling.
His daddy, he knew, had never gotten over it. He remembered the confused look on his face, as though the tractor had just run out of gas in the middle of a pasture. It was still there when Gene carried the last box of Della’s things to the car for her and shut the trunk lid. (The car she had bought herself, working after school at the Walgreen’s.) The boy she brought with her was already behind the wheel. After that, whenever Della’s name came up, Gene’s mother would leave the room and his daddy would start his fussing, then his cussing, until Gene couldn’t stand it anymore.
“All right, Daddy, that’s enough! I don’t like to hear you talk like that.”
Maybe Della was acting one tooth short of a saw, but there were certain words a man ought not to let past his mouth.
Gene sat in his living room and watched the light under the window shade in the front door growing smaller. There was a dead mosquito in the corner of the glass he had missed the last time he had cleaned it. He got up and scraped it off with the edge of his pocket knife. He wondered if Tiny had knocked off early like he did sometimes.
Sometimes Tiny liked to go to a truck stop on the highway called Love Nuts. He himself had never looked at a girl down there again after his daddy gave him the whipping for it, except for once. It was an accident. He had never told a soul about it. He didn’t think his grandmother even knew it. He had woken up on the floor by her bed and opened his eyes and looked up. The lamp on her night-stand was always kept burning for fear she’d fall again. He had looked up to find his grandmother sitting on the side of the bed above where he lay. One bare, yellow toe-nail foot was planted above and one below his head. She was looking down at him without noticing him. Her white hair hung down in tattered wisps over her shrunken shoulders inside the nightgown, and before Gene knew what he was doing, he was looking up her nightgown at her difference. It was then that he had seen what he had not seen when he had studied his sister down there.
It looked like a hole with dead grass stuck up all around it.
He couldn’t get it out of his head. No matter how hard he tried to forget, he would remember it. It made him think about dead people. And when he was sitting in his pew at church next to his mother (his daddy didn’t go) sometimes on Sunday, it was what popped into his head as the preacher was saying that no man has seen God and lived to tell of it.
The next day when Gene got to the hospital after work, Della still had not arrived, although she had called several times so that his mother had to step out into the hall to whisper into the phone while he stayed with his daddy in the hospital room that smelled like hand cleaner. He knew that the man and the woman who came in every evening who weren’t really nurses were giving his daddy sponge baths and poison now, just as they had done his grandmother at the end. They had talked about it in front of him as though he was the back of the chair he was sitting in.
When Gene came home that evening he had to slam the front door behind him to get it to close because it was even more October, and October was when the wind shifted around and started blowing hard against the front of the house. He first noticed it last year this time, his first fall alone in the house, but then he had got busy helping his daddy after work and on Saturdays. (He hadn’t noticed that his daddy let him do most of the heavy work, loading and unloading the pine straw and such, by himself.) Then summer came again. In the summer he had let the front door stand wide open, with just the screen there to keep the bugs out. (He didn’t like to use the air conditioner unit in the front window because it ran up his light bill. Besides, he was used to the heat.) But then it started getting cool at night here lately again. He didn’t care for the cold at all. The cold air crept in between the walls of the old house like a hand, and he had to start running the heat and keeping the front door shut. Then he was suddenly aware, as he was now, of how early it got dark.
Gene switched on the light quickly. The living room was small, and even with the light on it felt very small and dark and very different from the way it felt in the summer with the front door swung open, with the bright front yard and the hot street beyond, with the afternoon sun streaming across it when he looked out the screen.
Gene stood for a moment in the living room with his hand still on the light switch. A dim thought slowly took shape in his head like the moss beards of the live oaks leaning out of the fog in front of Yon Hall whenever he looked in that direction locking up his truck at work some of these damp, cool mornings. He shivered at his dark reflection in the window. (His grandmother used to tease him that was a rabbit running over his grave.) This was where he would still be living by himself, even after his mother and daddy were both dead.
On the Friday after his daddy went to the hospital, Gene sat in his truck, thinking. He was at the second stop-light on Business 84, on his way to where his daddy was lying in the hospital. It was five o’clock, and everybody was getting off work. The sun was already sliding down behind the trees up the road.
She ain’t coming, he thought, sitting at the red-light. The light turned green, and he drove on.
The traffic was heavier than usual because it was Friday. Gene switched on the radio, which he rarely did. It was all about the bad traffic. A car horn honked loudly. He looked at the car in the lane ahead of him and then at the SUV swerving around him on the left in the other lane. The tags were strange to him. He wondered who all these people were and where they were in such a hurry to go. He noticed they were nearly every one in the car by themselves. He was alone with them. Suddenly he had to fight to get control of himself, but he managed to do it, and at last he reached the hospital parking lot. He had to expect things to go wrong. The wind hit him in the chest like a fist when he got out of his truck.
“Gene Bostick, you’re a fool if you thought different,” he said aloud to himself.
When Gene got to the hospital, the same young doctor was waiting for him outside his daddy’s room. He hemmed and hawed a minute, and then he looked at Gene.
“Your father is dying,” he said finally. “I told your mother…he won’t last the night. I- I’m sorry.” The boy looked angry, like he wanted to hit somebody. He shook his head at the wall behind Gene, and then he seemed to be talking to someone else.
“I’ve never seen a malignancy go zero to sixty so fast….”
“I know it,” Gene said gently. He took the doctor’s clenched hand and shook it. When he let it go, the doctor met his eyes briefly and walked away up the hall.
Gene went into the hospital room. His mother wasn’t in there, and for just a moment he almost wondered where she was. He didn’t turn on the light. There were only the dim lights from the machines beeping in the twilight. His daddy seemed to be asleep when he sat down in the chair he pulled up. Gene looked at him. He was shriveled up and seemed to be slowly sinking into a hole in the middle of the bed. Gene could make out his daddy’s hair sticking up all over, so he took out his comb and fixed it so that it lay down on top of his head. He thought of the tractor, which needed the differential grease changed out, and then of his mother.
“Don’t worry, Daddy. I’ll look after it,” he said.
The eyes fluttered open. At first they seemed not to recognize him. Then the steel grey eyes opened wide in recognition. A damp hand reached out of the white covers and grabbed his.
“Daddy’s little darling,” his daddy whispered.
Gene felt himself falling through space like he’d done once on the monkey-bars. At the last, he caught hold of a bar and held on to it.
“That’s right,” he said, playing along. And he leaned down and kissed his daddy on the forehead just like Della might have done.