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fiction



by Kedrick Nettleton



Let Me Take Him



Emma came home late and told me about the man on Twelve West. Cancer had eaten away his right eye, most of his nose, and the right side of his jawline. She was scared of him, though it wasn’t fair and made her feel guilty to say aloud. That night under the covers, she told me that he wouldn’t last long.


“Comfort care,” she whispered. “Could go any time.”


But she had him again the next time she came to work, and the time after that. Emma’s charge nurse told her they were saving him for her special. “You’re one of the only ones I can trust to handle him like he needs.”


Handling him like he needs was mostly a waiting game, like Emma had told me before. The man had been fighting for too long, and like most who arrived at Twelve West, he’d come to stop. So when the question came, it wasn’t unusual—people who stopped fighting often asked.


“Does it hurt?”


Emma hadn’t noticed he was awake. She was changing medication and checking those hanging bags of fluid.


“No,” she said. “We’ll make sure you don’t feel a thing.”


The man rarely looked people in the eye, I assume out of consideration for the effect he had, but this time he stared at her. “And then what?”


“What?”


“What happens after that?”


Days later, when the moment had scabbed over and she was able to tell me the story, Emma ran through the answers she might have given him. Was he asking a medical question, or a spiritual one? She listed to me the kinds of theological proofs people like her and I picked up from the pulpit on Sunday, the reasons this man might have for believing in a life to come. But like so many people caught dead in a moment, she didn’t have the words. She wandered across the room to fidget with some of the apparatus there, not looking at him. Then:


“I can get you the priest or the chaplain, if you like.”


Neither of them spoke after that. Emma said the worst part was his disappointment, which she could feel coming off him like the rank smell his face produced. Later that day she returned with fresh sheets, but the man on Twelve West was breathing erratically. His lungs sounded squelchy—Emma says that when people die, they always sound like they’re drowning. He looked at her with panic in his one functioning eye. Almost, she told me, like it was an accusation. You promised it wouldn’t hurt.


Even then, Emma was almost too scared to take his hand. She stayed on his left side, so she couldn’t see the gap where his other eye should’ve been.


“Do you want me to get the chaplain? Do you need anything?”


“I’m fine.” You can imagine what his voice must have sounded like with his wet lungs. The way he must have paused to catch his breath. “I’m fine.”


“I’m so sorry,” she said. I imagine her voice as a whisper.


The way she tells the story, he nodded at her—a graceful gesture, the way a man can nod who knows pity and revulsion in equal measure. Like he was embarrassed for her. Emma said he died quietly, but his one eye stayed open when the final breath came, and he gripped her hand so fiercely it hurt.


I don’t know if she apologized a third time, but I like to imagine that she did. It’s better that way, somehow: my wife, still holding that man’s lifeless hand, apologizing to him.



It was a few days before she could tell me the story. I should’ve known something was bothering her, but because of the deadline waiting for me back at the office, I didn’t. Also because of Bobby. Our son was twelve months old and sick with something. Emma said teething and I said something worse, although I knew she was right, technically—Bobby’d already broken one tooth and I could see the nubs of a few more trying to push through the red of his gums. But I couldn’t square that with the rest of it: the fevers, the rashes, the way he barely slept anymore and wailed like he was being thrown in the fire.


“It’s painful for them,” Emma told me. “That’s normal.”


Then she brought up the funeral. The man from Twelve West had family, and they’d visited her at the hospital. “They asked if I’d come,” she said. “Since I saw him at the end.”


She told me the date, and I confess my first thought was about my deadline. But I agreed. It was on a Saturday afternoon, and I arranged with my parents to watch Bobby. They stood on the porch with him while we backed out of the driveway, and he raised his pudgy hand at us—not waving, just showing us his palm. I felt a hitch in my throat because you have to understand he was only twelve months. We hadn’t left him behind us much.


The funeral wasn’t in a church because the man’s parents weren’t religious, although the funeral home had still assigned a priest to stand by at the graveside. He spoke a few lines of scripture, and a man named Mark spoke, who I came to understand was Twelve West’s best friend. That’s the name I’d been using because that’s the way Emma had told me about him; she barely ever told me the names. Even when I saw his actual name on the order of service card, it didn’t feel like his.


I’d never actually seen a service where the guests pass by and sprinkle dirt on the coffin, but this one was like that. When I got my turn, I looked down into the grave for a few seconds before letting the soil fall, imagining the man my wife had described down there in that box. Decomposing in life, and now he was there in his coffin in the ground, continuing the process. I wondered if they’d had a viewing, or if his parents had preferred to leave the man’s face out of people’s memories of him. That’s what I would have done. There was a small grainy picture on the order of service and on a placard by the priest, and he looked young and whole in the picture, but again—it didn’t feel, to me, like him. A strange thing, I suppose, since I’d never met the man. While Emma went to the man’s parents to offer condolences, I stood apart and watched the priest pack up his things. He’d gotten dirt from the grave on the knees of his pants.


On the way home, Emma showed me an address card. The parents had invited her to dinner the following week at their house. They wanted all three of us for the evening. He told us about you specifically, they told her. He said he liked you. It’s the least we can do. Emma told them it was nothing, but of course it was very much something. She had been there when no one else had.


“Well, there’s my deadline,” I said.


“They want to say thank you.”


Emma was mostly silent in the car home, and her smile at Bobby’s greeting—he squealed with bright red cheeks, rediscovering something vital and primal—didn’t reach the corners of her eyes. That night, before I flicked the bedside lamp off, I turned to her, crumpled underneath the covers. “What’s wrong?”


She didn’t answer for a long time.


“I couldn’t even look at him,” she finally said. “I wanted to leave.”



Emma tucked the address card into the corner of our bathroom mirror, and it seemed to grow there every day. Bobby still wasn’t sleeping. Those rashes were growing, and there was a patch of scaly skin on the back of his downy neck. Each night I sat in the doorway of his room typing, both of us awake and watching the other warily. From Thursday to Friday, he ran a fever, so Saturday found us in the doctor’s office. Bobby looked around the white linoleum lobby with wide solemn eyes, and the doctor spoke to us from behind a white paper mask, giving us liquid medication and a strict administration schedule.


“The rash will clear, but I don’t like that fever,” she said. She spoke lightly, almost baby-talk. “If it comes back, you bring him in.”


Bobby sat amiably during the check-up. When the doctor leaned in to check his heartbeat, he grasped the end of the stethoscope between stout fingers and placed it in his mouth. He was still cheerful when we got home. Emma put him down for a nap.


“We let him sleep for as long as we can. Before tonight.” She was sitting on the edge of our bed, staring at the address card in the mirror. I walked to the spare room with my laptop.



They lived in a nicer neighborhood than we did, and I guess that surprised me. You think of people like that, the kind of parents who have a son with no face, you expect them to live somewhere gritty. This house had a double driveway and a hedged path up to the front door.


“Nice place,” I said, pushing the doorbell. Emma held Bobby in her arms, and I held the diaper bag. She didn’t reply. I looked at my watch.


The food was already on the table. I could smell it when they opened the door—both of them, together, revealing themselves like they’d walked onstage during a play. Her name was Brenda and his was Milo, but he asked us to call him Atkins because it was what they called him at work. I struggled to remember their names after they told me; all I kept thinking of was that they'd had a son with no face. Had, past tense. They’d dropped dirt on him, and he was no more.


We didn’t say grace before eating, but the food was good. Brenda had prepared a ham in honey sauce, and there were mashed potatoes and butter, and rolls wrapped in a white tea towel.


“It sometimes feels,” Milo said to the table, “that people don’t eat real food anymore.”


I agreed with him, already halfway into the roll. There was iced tea in my glass, and Emma was drinking soda water that Brenda had offered, although I’d never seen her drink soda water plain before.


“Real food is hard work,” Brenda said lightly. “Easier not to try, I guess.”


There wasn’t much else in the way of conversation during that meal. I ate like I hadn’t known food before and kept my eyes downward. When I did chance to look up, I invariably met their eyes, one of them, and then I got to thinking of the reality of that night—being there at that table with parents who had no son, and whose son, even when they’d had him, didn’t have a face. Was I sitting in his spot at the table? That’s what I wondered.


Bobby sat at a highchair Brenda had out when we arrived, sorting a few pieces of cut-up food items Emma had prepared for him. Soon his face drooped, and while Brenda and Milo cleared the dishes, Emma went into one of the guest bedrooms and put him down on the floor on a blanket.


“He’s been sick,” she said, returning to the kitchen. The house was lit by small yellow lamps. “Can’t seem to get him on a sleep schedule.”


“Nothing to apologize for,” Brenda said. “It’s natural.”


Milo directed us to the living room, a light space with white walls and a tan leather sofa. I couldn’t help looking at my watch. “Any coffee?” he asked, and we shook our heads no.


“Can’t afford to stay up,” I said. “With Bobby, we have to snatch the sleep we can.”


He nodded like he understood, which I suppose he must have. He’d had a son, after all, a son who was once a baby boy with nubby teeth breaking through gum skin, who wailed through the night just like Bobby did. I couldn’t, at that moment, remember Twelve West’s real name. I didn’t remember how old he was when he died, either, or if Emma had even told me. Brenda and Milo probably weren’t much older than my parents. The man could have been my age. I could have been sitting in his spot at dinner, and he could have been my age.


Brenda brought pie to us, setting small plates on the coffee table along with saucers and cups of coffee. “Don’t feel obligated,” she told us, her voice like a mother’s voice. “It’s just in case.”


I didn’t drink the coffee, but I ate the pie. Emma drank the coffee, or at least held the mug tight and looked like she was thinking about drinking. Then, for the first time, we talked—or rather, Milo did most of the talking. He started in on his work, and then moved to his life before work when he’d been in the service. He spoke of towns in Iraq like they were familiar and we should have recognized the names, but we didn’t. Then he talked about Brenda and his son.


“She brought me home,” he told us, except that he was looking at her when he said it, so it was like he was telling it to her. “Both of them brought me home. And now we’re here.”


“Beautiful,” I said. Inadequate, but what do you say to that? Emma nodded along with me, and I struggled not to look at my watch. Brenda and Milo leaned against their sofa, opposite ours, and looked like they were catching their breath from exercise.


Then Bobby started crying in the other room. Emma rose. “I’m so sorry. I’ll check him.”


“Bring him out here,” Milo said.


“It’s fine, I’ll put him back down.”


“We don’t mind at all,” he said. “Bring him out here.”


And how could she refuse? Emma brought him to the living room, his eyes red and his face sleepy. He’d stopped crying but looked on the verge of more, gazing around him like he was confused how he’d gotten there.


“I’m so sorry,” Emma said. “He’s usually not so fussy like this.”


“Not a problem,” Milo said.


“Here,” Brenda said. “Let me take him.”


I expected Emma to say no, but she didn’t. She passed Bobby over, and Brenda walked around the living room, bouncing her gait just a bit. They made eye contact like old friends; my son looked at her intently, and one of his fingers traced a small pattern on her cheek while they walked.


“It’s really no problem at all,” Milo said, leaning over the couch to talk to me.


I’d like to tell you that there was a moment, then—you know the kind. In a story with “moments,” Bobby would fall asleep in Brenda’s arms, and we’d sit up until late in the night telling stories about ourselves. Connecting. I wouldn’t be glancing at my watch every few moments in that story, but I was, and Bobby didn’t fall asleep. Every few minutes he glanced towards us, Emma and I, as if to check we were still there. Brenda continued her pacing, her bouncing, and Milo talked. Then it was time to go, and we stood at the doorway. Brenda passed the baby back.


“I can’t thank you enough,” she said. “It’s a strange thing.”


It was a strange thing. Bobby was on the edge of consciousness, his head tucked under Emma’s chin.


“Thank you for having us,” I said.


“It’s really no problem.” Milo again.


“You have a beautiful son,” Brenda said.


I still had some time left on my deadline, if we left exactly at that moment, but Emma wasn’t moving. She was looking at Bobby, thinking about saying something, and I thought I knew what it was. I didn’t want to be there, she’d said before. I didn’t want to touch him. I wonder if Brenda and Milo knew it too, because they didn’t let her talk.


“Do you want to see him?” Milo asked, quickly, quietly. “We have a good photograph.”


I didn’t want to see him, no—I was afraid to look at him, comfortable with my memory of the grainy funeral photo. My thought went back to the coffin, to the dirt on my fingertips falling downwards. But he didn’t wait for us to answer, and he came back with a family photo, and I really saw Twelve West for the first time. This must have been an older shot—Brenda, Milo, his friend Mark, and this vibrant alive boy. He was a young man in graduation robes, his hair long and his smile wide. I was surprised by how average he appeared.


“Beautiful,” Emma said. “You have a beautiful son.”


“We’ll have to do this again,” Milo said. We all nodded, and we all knew that we wouldn’t.


Things repeat themselves, don’t they? We stood in that doorway at the entrance to their home and I know for a fact we were all thinking, consciously or not—the same question Twelve West asked my wife.


And then what?


And Emma said the same thing to them that she’d said to him when he was gripping her hand, quietly and fiercely dying.


“I’m sorry. I’m really, really, very sorry.”


Then we were in the car backing out of the driveway, and Bobby was asleep in his car seat, and Brenda and Milo were standing on their doorstep, silhouettes in the light of their house. And it wasn’t enough, the apology. I might have tried to believe it was, and maybe Milo would have tried too, but not Emma or Brenda. These women who’d held each other’s sons. They knew that an apology didn’t fit that kind of loss, even if you had to give one anyway. Things don’t fit the way they should, and sometimes all you can do is point it out.


 

Kedrick Nettleton is a writer and journalist from Oklahoma. He recently received his MFA from Seattle Pacific University, though Kedrick lives in Tulsa with his wife, son, and two indifferent cats.


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