By Carol Reid
The nurse narrowed her eyes and said,
“Your father is going to need some help.”
Caddie hadn't seen headwear like this charge nurse's stiff white old-school cap since her teens. She wanted to reach out and yank it off, maybe a bit of scalp with it.
“He'll be coming home with me,” Caddie said.
She'd taken herself off the call list at work and settled it with Dan on the way to the hospital. She slept on the sofa bed last night to test it out, and with the mound of pillows at her back, the new television and remote control in easy reach on the side table, and the length of the entire house between her husband and herself, it had been the best seven hours in recent memory. Her father would be as comfortable as a man could be with a cut-line from shoulder-blade to rib and just one remaining lung.
A younger nurse pushing a wheelchair came into her father's room. Caddie shook out and folded his pyjamas into his small suitcase and slipped in the sheaf of aftercare instructions. He came out of the bathroom clean-shaven, dressed in creased slacks, pressed shirt, and carefully knotted tie as if he were heading to the office. He handed her his shaving kit and toiletry bag. The younger nurse helped him slip on his jacket.
“Bring the car around,” he said. “I'll be down in two shakes.”
“Dan's got it. He's watching for us.”
The white-capped nurse gave her a look that said “go.” It seemed to Caddie that her flinty eyes softened just a bit.
“I'll be at the gift shop,” Caddie said.
She headed the wrong way down the hall at first and had to walk past her father's room again before she found the elevator. No worries that her father or the nurses would notice her mistake. They were a circle of three, deep in conversation. She punched the down button and bumped the suitcase with her knee.
For her mother, Caddie had made endless batches of egg custard, every few days discarding the watery uneaten portions, replacing them with fresh ones. Time was counted in rows of little glass dishes lined up in her parents’ fridge. Her father had taken long solitary walks during her visits, or wandered through the aisles of the grocery stores, list in hand, mapping out his wifeless future.
“‘Do I want some grapes,’ he asks me. Now, he asks what I want. There is nothing he can do,” her mother said, waving away the tray set in front of her.
Caddie felt the downward plunge of the elevator car in her stomach and pressed her back into a corner. Her father would just have to put himself in her hands for the couple of weeks ahead. Her sainted brother lived a thousand miles away, with a nervous wife and three nervous children.
“You and your brother are apples and eggs,” her father had said during the muddled conversation in his kitchen ten days ago. “I can talk to him.”
“You mean he talks.”
Caddie added “convivial” to the long list of her brother's virtues. Her father handed over a large brown envelope.
“If I pack it in, you'll have my pension while you take care of things. It's all here.”
Dan told her to put all that paperwork away until it became necessary. Dan’s father had died when he was thirteen. He'd been talking about it more than usual while Caddie's dad was in the hospital.
The gift shop was full of breakable things, coffee mugs and praying hands paperweights made of an opaque glass. A china thimble hovered at the edge of its narrow shelf. Caddie placed a bet, and fall it did. It rolled intact under the legs of the glass display case of knitted toys and baby blankets.
Those must be what people steal, Caddie thought.
All she wanted right then was to hold her young son, but it was right to have left him home. His megawatt smile when she told him he'd be staying next door with Denise left no doubt. He'd come back from Denise's with tales of quinoa and kale for supper and the remnants of face paint on his chin and cheeks. For a moment, Caddie felt warm.
The two nurses and her father emerged from the elevator. He stood out of the chair immediately, and the charge nurse took his arm. He patted her hand as if they were old friends.
“All right, Dad?”
“Right as rain,” he said, and tottered down the walkway with Caddie at his heels. Dan had the car running in the pick-up zone, and two other cars idled in the lane, waiting to take the space. He got out and pulled the suitcase out of Caddie's hand, but she shouldered him away when he tried to help her father into the car. They ran a red light to get onto the bridge and Caddie wanted to smack him.
It was twilight by the time they crossed the strait on the big ferry and moonlit dark as they travelled the slow road up the peninsula. Her father dozed on and off, slumped in the back. Near Roberts Creek, he gasped and said,
“Slow down. When you see Greyfriars Road, turn left. Old Hugh Branford has a house down there. I want to see if he's still alive.”
They made the turn onto the narrow gravel road, but it was dead dark right down to the bottom. There was a car in Branford's driveway, not new but looking operational, and a Boler fifth-wheel sagging at the side of the woodshed. A flashlight beam poked out of the bush behind the house. Caddie recognized the tall, barrel-chested man moving into the clearing with a small dog on a leash.
Dan cut the engine and turned on the radio.
Caddie got out and waved.
“I'll just help my dad out of the back; he wanted to say hello.”
“Well!” The big man shouted. “Are you planning to get home tonight or were you looking for a bed?”
The little dog circled its master's legs and sat down.
Her father was having trouble turning his body to get out of the car. He gripped the doorframe and groaned to his feet.
“Heading for the last boat,” Caddie said. “He just wanted to say hello.”
“How are you, Branford?” Her father managed to ask.
“Better than you, I reckon. You look done for.” The two old men shook hands and shrugged at each other. “I think I heard your Rina died, is that so, Jock?”
“Yes,” he said. “Three years already.”
The two old men traded banter about the state of Branford's property and her father's health. There had always been so much talk whenever her dad met up with his friends. His face and voice changed when he was with them, everything lifted and brightened. Her mother had disliked them all.
“We should be going,” Caddie said. The worst part of the road was ahead, all blind corners and hairpin turns until they reached the cove where the small ferry would take them the last leg up the coast to home.
“I'll come and see you, Jock,” Branford said. “Not many of the old guard left anymore.”
“Not many,” her father agreed, and the two men shook hands again.
Caddie had to step between them to help her father get re-settled on the seat. She thought she felt cobwebs brush her face but it must have been a stray hair or two falling from someone's head. Surely they had not stayed long enough for even the most industrious spider to spin her threads around them.
A big raccoon leading her kids crossed in front of them as they drove up Greyfriars Road. She rose up on her hind legs in the beam of the headlights and challenged the car to pass. Caddie loved the chittering sound they made, although, unlike Dan, she was never fool enough to want to tame one.
“Mr. Branford was principal of my school, before we moved right into town,” Dan said as he turned back onto the dark highway.
This was new to Caddie and mildly interesting. Her father perked up at the sound of Dan's voice.
“Wildwood School? So he was, just before he moved up to the board office. Not an easy school.”
Caddie would have preferred her father stop talking. His voice was phlegmy, and his breath was short.
“He took a bunch of us to Vancouver Aquarium in seventh grade,” Dan said.” First time I ever saw the polar bears. Best thing that happened that year.”
“You could have said something to him just now,” Caddie said. This was the most Dan had said to anyone since they left the house that morning.
She couldn't trouble herself to answer.
“Good chap, old Branford.”
Caddie could hear her dad's breath wheeze in his half-empty chest.
“That's what people say to me about you these days. They stop me in the street.”
Caddie rubbed her tired eyes.
“Rest now. We'll be there in about half an hour. You can get yourself a chili dog on the boat.”
It was an old joke, her dad and his chili dogs with a Scotch chaser. Her stomach began to churn, and she put both hands on the dashboard.
“Sorry, sorry,” Dan said as he took a corner hard.
Caddie wished he would let her drive, but that would bring along its own aggravation. Dan turned around to check Caddie's father. No complaints were forthcoming from the curled-up form in the depths of the back seat.
When she was next aware, they were parked on the open car deck and a chill salty breeze was seeping through the cracked window. The sound of the water sloshing through the ferry engines rose and fell out of time with her father's slow, shallow breathing. Coast people are tidal creatures, she thought in that way she had of complicating things. Just as well Dan had gone upstairs. He didn't care for her imaginings, and as the years went by she began to get guilty pleasure out of sharing them. This needed to be a healing time for her father. Each of them, Dan, their son Evan, Caddie herself, had a part to play. For two weeks she could keep her nasty side to herself. More and more she was getting like her mother had been, full of poison darts.
Within a few minutes, the ferry was bumping up against the dock, and Dan came back to the car smelling of coffee and Old Port cigar. There'd be no more cigars for him for a while, no more clever remarks for Caddie. And Evan would have to be less of a boy until her father was up to going home.
She felt a familiar surge of energy as they drove up the long hill from the terminal and reached the straight stretch. Dan left the rest of the ferry traffic in the dust and they were in their driveway at ten to midnight. The nap had charged her up. She wanted to scrub floors and baseboards of every speck of grime, maybe clean out a closet or two. But there was nothing that needed cleaning. She wished she could run next door and wake up Evan, but he had school in the morning. Denise would get him fed, ready, and to the bus stop just as the sun rose.
She went inside and put on the kettle to boil while she helped her dad to his bed. He was as bright-eyed as she, but she felt the lack of strength in his body.
He sat on the edge of the mattress, working his feet from his shoes.
“One thing you could do,” he said. “Fetch those two bottles of Scotch out of the cupboard at my house. The rotgut and the good one.”
Dan came in with the trash from a day spent in the car and Caddie plucked the keys out of his hand.
“Just running over to Dad's.”
“I've got dayshift,” Dan said.
“I'll make your lunch when I get back. Go to bed.”
She went back into the kitchen and took the kettle off the stove.
“Does he want tea?” Dan said.
“Ask him,” she said, then took a calming breath.
“I won't be long.”
She found the good scotch where she'd last seen it, still in its canister, seal intact. The rotgut was next to the sink, a sticky glass beside it. There were maybe two fingers remaining, enough for a healthy nightcap. Next to the breadbox were a half-shredded plastic bag and couple of dry crusts torn into ragged pieces.
She picked up the bottle and swirled its contents, back and forth. She would not bring him cigarettes, no matter how many times he asked. Her father had given up his Craven 'A's only when the doctor threatened to cancel the surgery. The house still smelled powerfully of smoke; the drapes and carpet were thick with it. She grew up in a cloud and at twelve didn't hesitate to accept the first smoke offered her, but the habit never really took. Her mother had never smoked tobacco in her life, but she had gone first, and not easily. Caddie needed her mother. The strength of it shook her. She was the grownup, the caregiver, now. She put the bottles in a cloth bag and drove slowly back home.
Her father had changed into his pyjamas and lay atop the sheets, watching the television with the sound turned off. She set the cloth bag beside him.
“All's well at your house,” she said. “The mice, too.”
He took out the sealed canister and admired it.
“All right. I'll get a glass.”
From the kitchen she heard the vacuum pop of the lid being released. She put the heavy tumbler beside him on the end table. He held the bottle with both hands, supporting it as one would a newborn baby.
“That scotch is almost as old as I am,” she said.
He twisted the cap and the seal cracked open. With the first few drops came that singular scent of earth and heather that made Caddie want to hold her breath.
Her father leaned back and sighed, holding the glass against his breastbone. Caddie went back into the kitchen, took out bread, meat, biscuits, fruit, and made her husband's lunch.
Her father was groggy when she went in to say goodnight. He poured himself another drink and stared at her.
“You know, your mother would have walked out if she could have. Taken you and your brother both. If she’d had money.”
“I can’t imagine why you’d want to talk about that now, Dad. I need to get to sleep.”
“She was an unhappy woman, Caddie. There was nothing I could do.”
Caddie crossed her arms and pressed her lips together. She took the glass gently from his hand as his eyelids fluttered closed.
Dan crept out of bed at five. She'd barely slept. He sat back down on the bed when she waved a limp hand at him.
“I'm going to Dad's place to set out traps today. He can't go back to that.”
“Wait ‘til I get back from work.”
She turned over and pressed her face into her pillow.
“Evan will be home by then, you can't watch both of them.”
“You’re lucky to have him around, Caddie. My dad was gone so fast and I was just a kid. You’ve had him around all these years.”
He tugged at a strand of her hair.
“That’s what you should be thinking about right now. Right?”
“You’ll be late,” she said.
Dan closed the bedroom door behind him. The purr of his truck engine warming up lulled her to sleep, as always.
Her passage from sleep to waking was a shuffle-fall of memories, like a deck of cards. Her mother in the hospice bed, eyes black with pain. Her own feet slapping the linoleum to the nurses' station, the ward nurse stern and ugly in her denial. The long walk back to her mother's room, the short, useless apology. Her mother's smile, the worst thing.
Caddie opened her eyes to pale October light. She could hear the television chatter at the far end of the house. She put on her robe and raised the blinds. Spider silk laced the outside of the bedroom window, tiny flies caught among the filaments. She slid the window open and the web came apart, strand by strand.
Her father looked thinner in daylight. He hadn't put on his glasses, so she picked them up off the end table and handed them over. He was more himself with his specs; the way he raised his eyebrows to keep them set on the bridge of nose made him appear always a little startled, more alive. But the bottles visible at this time of the day gave an air of ruin, so she picked them up too and tucked them in a corner of the hutch.
“Best try to eat,” she said, “I've got your corn flakes.”
He ate some, holding the bowl on his lap, dipping the spoon with great care.
“I need to go into town soon. You'll be all right on your own for a while, eh?”
In her head she worked out configurations of traps, glue boards, and chunks of bait.
“I might call Stella,” her dad said.
When her mother was still at home someone had thought it a good idea to send a hospice nurse to the house, “to help.” Her mother had come to raging life at the sight of her. Death was the enemy, and this was death's serving girl. Caddie had sent her away, but her father had gone outside and talked with her for a long time. Not just that once, apparently. This Stella had phoned the day of his surgery, asking for news. The call could have been intrusive, but her voice on the phone was warm, low.
“I really like your father,” she'd said.
Caddie didn't remember much else about it.
She brought him the handset.
“Don't trouble yourself if it rings. Sure you'll be all right?”
“Yes,” he said.
Caddie picked up what she needed at the feed store and carted it by the armful into her father's house. She set everything down on the kitchen counter and pulled open all the curtains. A tired pallor had settled over the place, after just the past two weeks. Or had it been gathering since her mother's illness? She knew her dad had a service come to clean from time to time. Didn't he? For a few minutes she stood and listened. Where were they? Nowhere and everywhere, little secret creatures.
Just off the kitchen was the windowless pantry, fitted with dark wood shelves still laden with jars of preserves dated five years previous and big sacks of flour and oats. A mouse hotel if ever there was one. She pulled the string of the bare bulb overhead, hoping that if they were there and they jumped, none would land on her. The dim light revealed nothing, just more shadows and a smell of dust burning on the hot surface of the bulb. She baited the traps and set them on either side of the flour sack, which had a small tear on one side. The glue board went on the floor, pushed up against the inside wall. She hoped they found the trap. A fast kill would be easier than slow, for them and for her. In her head she practiced the hammer blow to the ones she found alive. Even in her head, she pulled back.
She went from room to room like this, sizing up the dark corners. In the living room, she remembered the skinny Christmas trees of her childhood, heavy strands of hot lights making their needles drop by Boxing Day. She wedged a trap in between the wall and the piano.
She thought she could smell them in the closet in her parents' bedroom where her mother had once scattered her high heels, where all the skirts and dresses so quickly disappeared after she was gone. She remembered the rustle of the fabrics her mother took such care in choosing for her party clothes–brocade, heavy satin, silk–almost like the sound of wings.
Her father's old clothes hung in a clump, as ever, taking up barely a third of the space. Caddie swept her hand between the hangers: no mice, just unaired wool and Dacron with no room to breathe.
She stood in the doorway for a minute or two, listening for a snap or a squeal, then locked up and left.
There was a blue Public Health van in the driveway when she got home so she took Dan's space beside the carport. She slammed her car door, but it was no more than a soft thunk and her house was built solid. They wouldn't have heard her from the living room. She walked around the side of the house and tried to keep her eyes on the ground but a crow dropping walnuts on the roof got her attention. Through the side window she saw them, sitting together on the edge of the unmade sofa bed. Her head was on his shoulder and she was talking, whatever she was saying made both of them laugh. Caddie turned back and went to the front steps. She was still sitting there when Stella came out of the house.
“Hey, Caddie,” Stella said.
She'd gone quite grey in the three years since Caddie had seen her. Her blue eyes and smile lines seemed intensified.
“So great that you can have your Dad stay here.”
He'd probably like it better with you, Caddie thought.
Stella sat down beside her, letting the silence settle between them. She heard her mother's voice in her head, her mother's words almost on her tongue, and didn't trust herself to speak.
“I'd like to come visit again, if it's all right.”
Stella, too, appeared to be struggling with something in her throat.
“Your dad and I are friends, but you're his daughter. He's grateful, Caddie. He thinks the world of you.”
It was as if Stella were speaking a foreign language. Her words had nothing to do with the way things had always been between Caddie and her father. She said,
"Do you remember my mother?”
Stella nodded and rubbed her forehead.
“She told me not to come back. Putting it mildly.”
More crows flew in and gathered on the roof. Caddie could hear the scrape of their beaks prying moss from between the shakes.
“Is he afraid?”
“I don’t think he is,” Stella said.
“Can we talk about it?”
Caddie expected Stella’s arm to snake around her shoulder, or her hand to squeeze Caddie’s arm. But she kept still, and her hands stayed folded. Caddie got to her feet.
“Okay,” she said. “When you come back.”
A dust devil tore up the driveway toward them. That time already? Evan had run down the hill from the school bus by himself and the thrill of it was all over him. He flung himself into Caddie's arms and the half-eaten apple in one hand stuck in her hair.
“Hi!” He shouted at Stella.
She laughed and said, “Hi to you!”
“Grampa's friend,” Caddie said.
Evan waved as Stella got into her van. He tried to squirm out of Caddie’s arms but she caught and held him again until the van was out of the driveway. He looked up and clapped his hands hard at the crows until they scattered.
“Resting. So you've got to get all your wiggles out before we go inside, okay?”
She flung him over her shoulder like a sack of potatoes and swayed back and forth until she felt him relax against her. For the first time she wondered if bringing her father here in this condition had been a bad idea. Evan had been barely two when her mother became ill. She couldn't bear to have her grandson near her, as if the hand of death might brush him with its fingertips.
Evan flinched, and she realized she was squeezing him too tight.
“Down you go,” she sang, and set him on his feet.
Her father’s eyes were closed when they went inside so she tip-toed Evan into his room, and they worked a puzzle together on the floor until the backdoor slammed open. Dan soon peered around Evan's bedroom door.
“He's awake and wondering where you all are,” Dan said.
Caddie got up off the floor.
“Go talk to Grampa, sweetie.”
She caught Evan's sleeve as he began to bolt.
“Slow speed, okay?”
He nodded and started to walk down the hallway toward the living room.
“When's supper?” Her husband asked. “I want to change the oil in the truck before dark.”
He was already walking away.
“Hang on,” she said. “Just stay here a minute.”
He stopped and turned to look at her.
She tried to sound sensible.
“My dad might not get better.”
Dan shook his head.
“That's pretty negative, Caddie.”
He was itching to get outside, she could tell.
“If you need help with supper, call me.”
Instead of going into the kitchen, Caddie went upstairs. She closed the bedroom door. Then locked it. She took the long brown envelope her father had given her weeks ago out of her desk drawer and pulled the string from around its seal. The expected documents were there, birth certificate, will, pension transfer, house title. She unfolded the will and looked it over. A simple split between Caddie and her brother and some small bequests, one to Hugh Branford for a large bottle of bad scotch. Separate from these was a small, flat bundle tied with a narrow blue ribbon. Letters addressed to her mother in her father's hand. She opened one, then another, and tried to read bits of each but had to close her eyes. She had never witnessed the love held in these scrawled words, but she saw it now like a flickering newsreel playing in her spinning head. She refolded everything, tucked it away.
From the hall, she heard the rattle of Lego pieces spilling and her son giggling. The living room carpet was awash with yellow, red, blue cubes and headless Lego people.
Her father stood at the edge of the rocky multi-hued sea holding the lid of the bucket.
“Grampa dropped it,” Evan said. “You better pick this all up, Grampa.”
“We'll pick it up,” Caddie said. “Sit down, Dad, before you fall down.”
She put her arm around her father's waist and let him lean on her a little as he lowered himself into Dan's easy chair.
He pulled a handkerchief out of his trouser pocket and held it against his forehead. After two ragged breaths he cleared his throat and appeared to relax. Evan gathered up an overflowing handful of blocks and Caddie knelt down and raked the remaining Legos into a mound.
“How long are you going to live here, Grampa?”
“We want Grampa to stay until he's all better,” Caddie said.
Evan nodded and put his arm around her neck.
“Day or two should do,” her father said.
Caddie leaned back on her heels.
“Dad,” she said. “I want you to stay.”
“We're ruled by women, lad.” he said to Evan.
He crumpled his handkerchief into his pocket. A spot on his trousers caught his attention and he tried to rub it away.
"Fetch me a drop when you get up, Caddie."
“Well,” Caddie said, “Maybe I’ll join you in a small one.”
His eyebrows rose.
“Will you? The good one, then. I’ve grown a taste for it.”
In the kitchen she poured out a couple of tots of the good scotch and took a sip. It warmed all the way down. She brought her father his drink and sat down on the carpet beside his chair. Evan circled them, hopping carefully on one foot then the other. Her dad tried to cross his legs, sighed and leaned forward a little.
“Does it hurt, Dad?”
“Somewhat,” he said.
They sat quietly until long after their drinks were empty. Evan built a Lego fence around them. When it was complete, he went to the back door where he stood like a guard against whatever was out there waiting to get in.
Carol Reid lives on the west coast of Canada, close to the north end of Highway 101. Her short stories and micro-fiction have appeared in many print and online journals over the past thirty years. Carol is the current fiction editor of MadHat Lit.
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