At the Veterans Hospital, Bill Gadonski and his mother stood over his father, looking down at the emaciated man. Mr. Gadonski just lay there, not moving, taking up little more than half the bed; he was deteriorating at a faster pace now. Along the sides of the bed, the rails were pulled up and the top half was raised. And it was convenient for him that his buzzer was tied to one of the rails to limit his painful movements. Mrs. Gadonski had trouble keeping herself from crying. She tapped her son on the arm and walked outside the room.
“The doctor told me he waited too long for treatment,’’ she said.
“I know,’’ Bill said, staring at the floor.
Mrs. Gadonski’s face lost its sternness; her tight lips quivered and her eyes had a glossy look.
“Are you going to stay, ma?’’
“Probably the rest of the night.’’
Bill lifted his head without making eye contact with his mother. “I’ve got to go,’’ he said while shaking his head from side to side.
Mrs. Gadonski gave in. “All right. Go ahead.’’
Bill hugged his mother, admiring her, and said, “I love you, mom.’’ He walked down the hall to the elevator. Mrs. Gadonski walked back into the room.
Outside, in the parking lot below the windows of the hospital, Bill got into his car; it was an old, navy blue Chevelle. He turned the ignition, but the car wouldn’t turn over.
“Dammit,’’ Bill screamed. The oil light was on again. He went to the trunk, opened it, and pulled out three quarts of oil. He then opened the hood, unscrewed the caps and poured the carmel‑colored fluid in. This time the car started without effort, and he drove home to his apartment in Wilkes‑Barre.
Down a narrow driveway, Bill drove his car to the rear of the building and tramped up the rickety, weathered stairs. He opened the door of the top floor apartment and saw his fiancée, Denise, sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette, and waiting for supper to cook. Bill sat at the opposite end of the table.
“Any worse?’’ Denise asked.
Bill shook his head. “He can’t get any worse.’’
Denise stared straight at the oven, sitting proper ‑‑ right leg crossed tight over her left. Her chest sank while letting out a puff of smoke. “It’s a wonder they even let someone live like that.’’
“It isn’t his time. They’re waiting for the cure to come in the mail.’’
Bill moved out onto the balcony after supper, and seated himself on a reclining chair covered with plastic. The eaves, only a few feet above, and the wall, shadowed him from the rain that was falling. He stared out across the river and watched the dark gray clouds overtake the entire valley. The rain had moved up from the south ‑‑ fine and misty from a distance ‑‑ like a shower curtain across a rod of clouds. It turned the mountains a dull shade of green.
Denise, too, came outside after clearing the table. She stopped outside the door and brushed off her long, paisley skirt, and lit another cigarette. She sat on the arm of the same chair as Bill ‑‑ her blond hair brushing over his shoulder.
“You ought to go back to the hospital tonight. At least to keep your mother company.’’
“I’m not going again tonight.’’ Bill was silent for a long pause. “He’d rather I see him as little as possible.’’
“I don’t understand. If your mother’s always there, why wouldn’t he want to see you?’’
He let out a hard gust of air. “He doesn’t feel the same toward my mother. He probably thinks I’m ashamed to see him as he is.’’
“He’s wrong, isn’t he?’’
“Of course he is. I don’t love him any less; I just want to make him feel a little easier.’’ He got up from the chair, and Denise slid into it. His brown hair and the shoulders of his gray T‑shirt got wet with heavy drops of summer rain. He held Denise’s hand and kissed her lightly on the lips as an apologetic gesture for his lack of patience.
“Tomorrow I’ll go see him again, okay?’’
“I’ll go with you,’’ Denise said, as Bill walked to the stairway. “Where are you going?’’
Denise looked down over the balcony and watched Bill get into the car and disappear around the front of the building. Across town he drove, to the south end of Wilkes‑Barre. And once there, he pulled up in front of a large white house next to a set of railroad tracks. He walked up the short steps to the porch and knocked on the door. A man with gray, plastic‑rimmed glasses and a tightly groomed beard answered the door.
“Hello, Bill. How are you?’’ the man said with a resolute tone in his voice.
“Pretty good, John.’’ Bill had met John a week earlier when he came to look at the car for sale. Both men walked over to the car ‑‑ a black, 1985 Oldsmobile ‑‑ which sat alongside of the tracks.
“What do you think?’’ John asked.
“I like it.’’
“You already know: no rust, low mileage…’’
“I know. I was wondering if I can take it for a ride.’’
“Sure. Go right ahead.’’ John was silent for a moment. He turned and pointed to Bill’s Chevelle. “What are you going to do with that?’’
“Bill was already sitting in the Oldsmobile with a leg still hanging out. “I’m getting rid of it,’’ he said. He held up his left hand. “Leaks oil like a sieve, timing is off, and the underside of the passenger’s seat is rotted through the floor.’’ As he listed each problem with the car, a finger discharged from his fist. “Why, do you want it?’’
“No. I was just wondering.’’
Bill closed the door and crept the car out, over the grass and along the tracks. He moved down the street at a cautious pace, with John staring down the road after the car. As soon as John was out of sight, Bill pushed further on the gas pedal.
Traffic was still in the late stages of rush hour, and Bill was sin a hurry to make it out of town. He didn’t know what his destination was, and didn’t care; he just wanted to drive. Through the monotony of the traffic and the constant change in lights, Bill drove, and made it to route 115, the most convenient thoroughfare out of town and the valley.
At first his movement was slow and deliberate. He held the wheel with one hand, while his left elbow hung out the opened window. Patience, almost out of the mess.
The outskirts of town enabled him to move a bit quicker. Traffic became sparse, and the speedometer rose as he ascended the mountain route into Bear Creek. Bill began to feel safe, relieved, while distancing himself from the Wyoming Valley. Farther up the mountain the highway broadened, and Bill passed the few vehicles he encountered. Up ahead, he saw two men dressed in fluorescent orange. No. A man and a young boy unloading small caliber rifles. The tailgate of their pickup was down and on the edge of it were two lumps of fur. Woodchucks, Bill thought; those are the only land animals in season in the summertime.
The rain stopped by this time, and the cloud cover became lighter. And Bill noticed the straining sun’s dim reflections off the cars that moved opposite him. Two tractor trailers came lumbering down the road, long white panels rippling from the bounces. They were moving fast from the steepness of the grade, but their speed was under control. Those drivers must have some deadline to meet.
Curving and bending, the highway moved southeast and ended just short of New Jersey. Bill didn’t stop once; his movement through Bear Creek and Thornhurst was quick, and he didn’t remember passing through Blakesley at all. Wow! Broadheadsville ‑‑ only three miles.
The sun came out in full, no clouds, just an orange light shining back through the mirror and streaking across windshields. Broadheadsville was where the highway ended. And turning the car around in a parking lot, Bill headed back on the same road. Without his realizing it, an hour’s worth of driving passed.
Riding northwest and back home, the sun lowered in the sky, almost resting on the rounded mountaintops. Although the sun was still bright, it didn’t hurt to look; the brightness was indirect and dull. And Bill didn’t need the visor to protect his eyes.
Even though his movement was fast, he was in no hurry to return. John’s going to be pissed, he thought, while laughing out loud, for al the miles on the car. But he felt better, revived.
Denise should be here. That was all he could think about, hoping she would be home when his ride ended. A rush of nervous heat spread throughout his chest and stomach. She’ll be at home, either at the kitchen table or on the couch, reading the newspaper and waiting for me. His imagination was controlled, wanting to please her as well as himself. Nothing lustful, just the slow love that he liked to give her.
These thoughts owned him, and he rolled into Bear Creek more quickly than he realized. The sun was now behind the mountains, and the thin, streaked clouds were dull shades of pink, orange and violet. Back down the mountain again, through Plains Township and into Wilkes‑Barre, where a cluster of traffic lights slowed him down, keeping him from his destination. He smashed his fist on the dashboard, and yelled violently to himself about other drivers and at each light that turned red.
The only relief was that there wasn’t much longer to drive, and Bill’s thoughts of Denise took his attention away from where he was and how much longer it would take to get home. He saw her sitting on the couch, which was strategically placed against the back wall for an easy view into the kitchen and the front door. She was the one who put it there, and Bill walked in many times to see her waiting, worried. He could see her flipping through the pages of the newspaper, not reading any of it, just fidgeting. She’ll read a sentence or two or the caption under a photograph. And after going through it once, she’ll do it again backwards. Bill laughed to himself. What a worrier, he thought. And if she doesn’t fall asleep at that point, she’ll flip through the channels on the television with the sound turned down so that she could hear me thumping up the steps, and not one channel out of 188 would hold her interest, but she’ll keep doing it.
Then, she ought to fall asleep. Other times, he walked in to see her with an afghan wrapped tightly around her shoulders and breast. If she’s lying down, she’ll be curled into a ball, the newspaper a crumpled mess and the television on some strange channel that neither of us ever watch.
The latch of the storm door clicked and the wooden door behind it flew open, banging the wall. The trunk of Denise’s body flew up and she propped her arm against the couch. She blinked a while for her eyes to adjust.
Bill dropped his car keys on the kitchen table and walked into the living room. “Hi,’’ he said, and sat down next to her.
“Hey,’’ Denise whispered.
“I thought you’d still be here.’’
Denise leaned against him, and Bill placed an arm around her.
“I missed you before I fell asleep.’’
Bill put his lips against her ear and whispered, “I missed you, too. I wished you were with me, but I couldn’t turn around.’’
Perhaps she understood, because she didn’t question where Bill had gone, or why. She made herself more comfortable against his body. Bill lowered his face and placed nose and lips in the crook of Denise’s neck. He liked the way she smelled: no colognes or perfumes, just feminine body chemistry ‑‑ subtle, but still pleasant to him.
“I love you,’’ he said while lifting his head.
* * *
No sounds came from their bedroom, for bill had fallen asleep. Denise, however, didn’t need any and she just lay there on her back, eyes wide. It was early for a Friday evening.
The mattress and box spring lay on the floor without a frame and an old milk crate sat next to the bed as a night table. Bill woke up and stumbled through the doorway in only a pair of undershorts. He walked through the darkened living room and into the kitchen to see Denise sitting at the table, smoking a cigarette.
She smiled at him. “Wake up.’’
“I am. I’m just thinking. I’m going to have to take a day off from work soon.’’ He sat down at the table across from Denise. “I’m probably going to have to be a pallbearer.’’
“Hey, why don’t we go somewhere,’’ Denise suggested.
“Alright. We’ll go for a couple drinks.’’
They both walked back into the bedroom to get dressed, and Denise went into the bathroom while Bill waited. He sat on the couch, all jittery with excitement.
“Hey, I took that car for a ride before.’’
Denise walked out into the living room. “Yeah?’’
“I told that guy I’m going to buy it. That all right with you?’’
“Sure it is. I like that car.’’
“Good, then. We’ll go get it Sunday, and you can follow me to the junkyard to drop off the Chevelle.’’