The eastern North Carolina horizon had just begun oozing orangey pink as Donnie Harris splashed through silver-gray puddles and mud that muffled each gentle thud of his sneakers. Sparse gravel pebbles sparkled in the early light, tiny stars blinking in the rutty old road. The Delaney farmhouse squatting behind a field of washed-out tobacco plants marked the last mile of his run. Gravity had not yet won the battle with the antique structure, but it was gaining. The farmhouse leaned, and wood siding long naked of paint sloughed off like a sycamore tree’s bark.
Delaney’s rusted pickup bounced over potholes toward Donnie, the sun a golden orb behind it. Donnie waved, but Delaney didn’t seem to see him, the old manâ€™s wrinkled brown face hidden under a ball cap. A wren’s throaty call pierced the air as dawn colored the dogwood blossoms pink and the azaleas burgundy.
Donnie rewarded himself after his five-mile run with black coffee, greasy bacon, runny fried eggs and toast, which he ate reading the newspaper. Michelle would have scolded him, told him civilized people didnâ€™t read at the table, but she wasnâ€™t here to criticize his manners. Swallowing a bite of eggs, he vowed not to miss her.
Although breast cancer had taken her from him, sometimes he heard Michelle’s voice, as if she were sitting at the table with him. “You should check on Suzie and Ed Delaney. When was the last time you saw Suzie working in the garden or heard the piano?”
He realized Michelle would have visited the Delaneys. But she wasnâ€™t here. Donnie couldn’t go without her. He wouldnâ€™t know what to say. His hands shook, dripping eggs ever the paper. Annoyed, he pounded the table with a fist, spinning eggs, toast and coffee onto the floor.
“Now look what you’ve done,” Michelle scolded.
Donnie wiped a hand across his tired eyes, suddenly feeling exhausted, more than just worn-out from his run.
Wrapped in a blanket, Suzie Delaney sat on the porch absently poking her finger in and out of a hole in the webbing of a wicker chair that had needed replacing years ago. Ed was reluctant to part with the set and she hadnâ€™t fought him on it.
She glanced down the street at the “For Sale” sign decorating a neighborâ€™s yard. The house had previously been occupied by an elderly couple. Both had recently passed away. She had gone to the hospital for a hip replacement and had not come home. A month later, her husband had a stroke and then died. Suzie shook her head. She was older than her deceased neighbors had been by several years. She vowed not to allow Ed to take her to the hospital.
Ed handed her the phone. â€œItâ€™s Larry.â€
Suzie hadnâ€™t heard it ring.
His voice sounded muffled through the receiver, â€œMom, I thought Iâ€™d come up and help you tend the garden. I have an ulterior motive to pick up some zucchini. Louise has promised zucchini bread and my mouth is watering already.â€
â€œThere is no zucchini.â€ If Suzie hadnâ€™t been aware that she was yelling, the wave of nausea the exertion caused would have reminded her. She struggled to stay upright, the wicker groaning beneath her. â€œAh, your father and I decided not to grow any vegetables this year. Weâ€™re letting the soil recover.â€ Her voice sounded weak, even to herself. She hoped Larry hadn’t noticed.
â€œWhat? Every year since I can remember, youâ€™ve had a garden.â€
“Not . . .Â this year . . . son.” She felt herself drifting off–the oxycodone starting to do its work. â€œTalk . . . talk to your father.â€ She was proud for only slightly slurring the words. â€œNot a word, Edward,â€ she mouthed, noticing his shirt was wrinkled and his trousers stained.
â€œWe miss you too son,â€ Ed said.
Ed will be okay, Suzie thought, before drifting off into a drug-induced sleep.
Moving at the lightning speed of a sloth on I-77, Louise Delaney answered her cell, glad for the distraction from fighting Charlotteâ€™s Friday evening traffic.
â€œLouise, Iâ€™m glad you picked up.â€ Her husbandâ€™s voice was stilted and gravelly.
Alarm prickled up her spine. “Larry, what’s wrong?”
“I just got a call from Uncle Rick. Mom is in the hospital.”
Louise’s gripped the steering wheel a little harder. “Larry, I’m so sorry. Is it serious?” Honking startled her. The Sebring convertible that had been tailgating her was now mere inches from her back bumper. She pushed her foot down on the gas.
“Sheâ€™s dying.” His voice was barely a whisper.
Louise hurried into her house.
“Hello. Yes, this is Larry Delaney . . . uh Suzie Delaney’s son. I’m calling about her condition.”
Louise dropped her computer and purse on a living room chair and walked into the kitchen. The new paint looked good–an off white called ash rose. It lightened the room. But now the cabinets were too dark. They’d have to be replaced.
Larry hung up the phone and sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, black hair sticking between his fingers in tuffs.
“That damn receptionist wouldnâ€™t tell me any thing–wouldnâ€™t even say if motherâ€™s in the hospital or not.”
Louise traced the pattern in the oak table with a finger. She couldnâ€™t think of anything to say. Suzie hadnâ€™t been sick a day in all of the twenty years that Louise and Larry had been married.
Larry’s eyes were vacant. “I . . . I didn’t even know she was sick. Uncle Rick said Mom has stage four liver cancer.â€
He ran his hands through his hair until it stood on end. â€œThe nurse says her cancer has started invading other organs. They can only make her more comfortable.”
â€œAt Ed’s birthday party two months ago, Suzie seemed fine,â€ Louise said. Although Suzie had said her shoulder and back were bothering her. And Suzie had lost some weight, Louise realized.
Louise thought she was ready to face what was in that hospital room, until she saw her mother-in-law. Suzie Delaney was bloated, her arms and legs swollen and jaundiced. The hospital gown did little to hide her enlarged abdomen. Her puffy face looked distorted without her false teeth, and the oxygen tube running from her nose to both ears gave her an alien appearance.
Suzie opened her yellowing eyes, and looked at them; her gaze seeming to cut right through Louise. Through cracked lips, Suzie whispered “Mich . . . a . . . eel. I. See. Michelle.” Gasping and wheezing, it seemed difficult for Suzie to catch her breath even with the oxygen tube in her nose.
Why hadn’t someone combed Suzieâ€™s hair? Matted white tufts ringed her mother-in-lawâ€™s puffy face. It didn’t look like her hair had been washed in weeks.
Louise felt heat flush her own neck.
Suzie coughed weakly and then seemed to drift to sleep, probably heavily medicated. Her mouth fell open, gums showing.
Ed pulled his ball cap further back on his head and sat down. “Doctor says her tumors are too large to remove. Her cancer is not sensitive to radiation and chemotherapy is not an option.” He leaned back and tucked his flannel shirt into his jeans. Tear stains marked both lenses of his glasses, which were perched crookedly on his nose. â€œShe hasn’t eaten anything in four days.â€
Suzie opened her jaundiced eyes and looked at Ed. “I. Woo . . . wonâ€™t. Leave. You.” She coughed and closed her eyes.
“Sheâ€™s not going to make it.” Ed broke down, wiping tears with a wrinkled dirty hankie, which he then shoved in a pants pocket.
Suzie stirred, turned her head.
Louise nudged Larryâ€™s arm. â€œLetâ€™s get your father out of here.â€
Thunder shook the house. Lightning lit the sky and rain pounded the roof. Suzie would have loved it. She would stare out the kitchen window for hours, just watching the rain. Looking out her window, Ed Delaney watched Donnie run by, his shirt sticking to his skin and water running from his long hair. Ed shook his head. In his generation jogging in the rain would have seemed crazy. Young folks today didnâ€™t have any sense.
Ed fiddled absently with his CB radio, turned the signal needle. â€œEd TV, signinâ€™ on. Do you have your ears on?â€ Heâ€™d given himself the handle because heâ€™d repaired televisions at Sears for 35 years before retiring.
â€œSure enough. Youâ€™ve got F. Scott, here.â€
â€œHey, TV. Good to hear your voice. Wascally Wabbit, out.â€
â€œTV, how are you holding up? F. Scott, out.â€
How was he holding up? Ed glanced at the obituary on the coffee table.
Suzie Mildred Delaney died yesterday at the Alamance Regional Hospital. She was survived by her husband Edward Delaney, a son Larry and his wife Louise . . .
His hands shook on the CB dial. â€œOkay . . . uh, just remembered, I . . . I got food on the stove. TV out.â€
Goddamn stubborn that’s what she had been. When Suzie said the pain in her abdomen wasnâ€™t bad, that she just felt bloated, Ed should have known better. He should have taken her to the hospital. Instead, he fed her pain killers and cried himself to sleep.
He had dialed 911 more than once, but hung up each time before the call went through. She had refused to go to the hospital. Finally, when she quit eating, he had to call. He couldnâ€™t watch her starve.
Radio static then, â€œTV, Ed TV, come in.â€
Ed wiped his eyes with his hankie, realized he was bone tired. Toward the end Suzie hadn’t slept more than an hour at a time. He tilted his recliner back and stared open-eyed at the discolored wall behind the piano. An ash tray sat on the piano top, empty. He realized the ash try had been empty for some time. When had he last seen her light one of her thin brown cigarettes? He didn’t remember.
He could paint the nicotine-stained walls now that she was gone; he had never smoked. He shook his head. He didn’t want white walls.
Piano music jolted him awake. She was playing â€œSuzie Q,â€ beating the notes out of the old piano, a brown cigarette in her mouth. Suzie stood up and said, “Ed, come to bed, or are you going to sit up in that chair all night?”
Thunder rumbled. Must be his imagination. His right knee began to ache, as it always did when the weather changed. He shut his eyes. Weariness seemed to have settled into his very bones.
Donnie grabbed the six pack of Heineken from his truck. He rang the doorbell and waited, wishing for the hundredth time that Michelle were with him. What was he supposed to say to Ed Delaney?
The screen door opened. â€œYes.â€ Piano music and cigarette smoke with a fainter edge of kerosene drifted from behind Delaney.
â€œUh . . . thought youâ€™d like a beer, maybe some company.â€ Donnie held out a can.
â€œHold on a minute.â€
Donnie watched his neighbor go back into the smoky house. He popped open a beer and took a swig. This was a mistake, he thought and started to walk off the porch.
The door opened. â€œHey, donâ€™t run off. Beer would sure enough go good with a cigar. Just the ticket. Yessirree. Have one.â€
Donnie sat on a rocking chair on Delaneyâ€™s porch, and lit the fat cigar. â€œWhat do you think of the Durham Bulls this year?â€
â€œItâ€™s hard to tell because they have a lot of new players on their roster.â€
â€œYup, a new season, a whole new ball game.â€ Donnie blew a cloud of smoke that drifted up through the billowing branches of an old oak, not yet begun to leaf, but heavy with seedpods. Cottony pink dogwood petals rained in the distance as piano music drifted again from Delaneyâ€™s house. Sounded like an amateur pianist pounding out â€œThe Good Old Summer Time.â€