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William Cass short story

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Surprise

by William Cass

 

 

The cabin phone rang just as my wife, Molly, and her parents were heading up the path for their morning walk.  I answered it and called to my father-in-law.  I heard Ralph stop and retrace his steps.  He looked in the window.

“It’s your sister,” I told him.

He made a face and came back inside.  I handed him the phone.  He walked into the kitchen with it after saying, “Yes?”  I turned the stereo down; he’d put on a Mozart CD before they’d left.  I heard him say, “When?” Then, “Shucks.”

So, I walked up the hall to look in on Sam.  He was asleep in his crib, his feed almost finished.  The pump made its soft whir on the pole.  I checked the connection at his G-tube and it was fine.  Molly had left all the parts to his nebulizer scattered about again, so I put them away.

When I came back to the front room, Ralph was just putting the phone back in its cradle.  We stood and looked at each other.  Finally, he said, “Well, my Aunt Ruth just passed.  She was eighty-something.  Sometime in the middle of the night when she was sleeping.  Down near Bakersfield or Barstow in California somewhere.  Where she’s lived just about forever.”

“That’s too bad,” I said.

Ralph looked out at the lake.  The sun had just touched the tips of the tall trees across it on the west side.  “Well, she’s the last one of that bunch.  That generation is gone now.”  We were quiet again.  Then he raised his eyebrows and said, “I’m going to try to catch the girls.”

I watched him pass the window with his tall walking stick and listened to his footsteps go off up the path.  I turned up the music again, but not as loud as it had been.  I poured another cup of coffee and took it out on the front porch.  A squirrel skittered up the side of a thick fir tree.  I could smell the dusty pine, not yet sun-warmed.

After breakfast, Molly stayed with Sam while the rest of us went up Hunt Lake Road to cut down a dead tamarack they’d happened upon on their walk.  I drove the four-wheeler, and her folks rode up in the old powder-blue pick-up.  They stopped just beyond the big boulder at the cut-off to Horton Ridge.  It was near a spot where Ralph and I had ruined a huge tam several years before by hanging it up between two alders as we ran out of the woods carrying the chainsaw and the ropes to escape its fall.

When he got out of the cab, Ralph grinned at me and said, “Did you see the widow-maker?”

“Sure.”  I laughed and shook my head.  “Someday we’ll go back and get it.”

“Not on your life, Paul Bunyan,” he said and lifted the chainsaw out of the bed of the truck.

The tree that day was thin but tall and stood about twenty yards from the road.  Ralph sat this one down perfectly, and we pulled it out towards the road with the come-along hitched to the back of the pick-up.  My mother-in-law, Marilyn, marked fourteen inches along the length of it with the hatchet, then hacked off the small branches and knots ahead of Ralph while he cut.  I hauled the rounds out and tossed them into the back of the truck.

The whole affair didn’t take much more than an hour, but the day had already heated up and we were all wet with sweat afterwards.  We sat on the rear bumper of the truck and passed around a thermos of lemonade.  We looked out over the ridge at the wide portion of Priest Lake below, at the two small islands that sat like gumdrops near the western shore, and the gray-green Selkirk Range that ran into Canada behind it.  A few white clouds high in the sky left shadows on the surface of the lake that otherwise shimmered in the sunlight.

“Maybe it will rain,” Marilyn said.

Ralph looked up at the clouds, then to the north towards Chimney Rock.  He shook his head.  “That would be nice,” he said, “but I doubt it.”

When we got back, I unloaded the rounds, then split and stacked them.  Ralph and Marilyn went down to the cabin because they knew it was something I enjoyed doing myself.  It approximated the kind of workout I might have gotten back in San Diego.  I didn’t like to run on the narrow dirt roads because of the logging trucks, and I wasn’t much of a swimmer.  I was good and tired by the time I’d finished.

I looked at the woodshed with satisfaction.  We’d almost filled it already that summer.  In reality, there was more wood than they’d need in any two winters, but I knew we’d go for more. Maybe a week would pass, then someone would see a dead tam and we’d have a project to fill half a day.  It was sort of like a small hunting expedition at Hunt Creek Lodge, which is what Molly had named the cabin when her parents bought it several years before after Ralph retired from Boeing and they sold their pretend farm in the foothills below Mt. Rainer.  Now they split their time between the lake and a rental near our place during most of the school year when we were both teaching.  They helped out a lot with Sam and all his appointments with the neurologist, pulmonoligist, dysmorphologist, and his other specialists and therapists.

I jumped in the lake, showered, and then we all had lunch on the front porch.  A small breeze had come up, and with it, little waves that Ralph called “sheep running” when they got large enough to crest white.

Sam was asleep again.  I asked Molly if she was able to do his range of motion exercises with him before he went down.

“Yes,” she said.  “And he took care of business on his own.  Ex-nay on the enema.”

I said, “Touché.”  I reached out my glass of ice tea to toast with her, but she’d already turned away.

After lunch, Ralph took a nap while the rest of us sat in the shade on the porch.  Molly did some planning for school and Marilyn did crosswords.  I read a book.  There weren’t many motorboats out on the water because of the chop, so it was quiet unless a logging truck went by up on the road.

A couple of hours later, Ralph came out on the porch carrying Sam, and handed him to me.  He said, “Either I woke him with my snoring, or he woke me with his squawking.”

“Hi,” I said to Sam snuggling him close.  “How’s my buddy?”  I rubbed the flat back of his head.  Sam moaned happily, burrowing into my chest like he did.

Ralph and Marilyn took their daily drive into Coolin for the mail.  I got Sam’s breathing treatment going.  After he was finished, I put him in the backpack carrier and Molly and I walked up to the falls.  We took along the coffee can pails in case we saw any huckleberries only to add small purpose to the outing.  It had been a light summer for huckleberries, and except up high on the north side of hills, they’d almost entirely passed.  But it was a pretty hike up through the pine trees and clearings that had been logged years before and were still full of daisies, lupine, and fireweed.  The breeze had cooled things a bit, especially when the sun hid behind the clouds.

We didn’t find any huckleberries, but on the way back down, Sam began to cry and had a small seizure.  We sat on a log and waited for it to pass.  I held him close and said, “Shh” into his ear.  It only lasted a minute, but afterwards he was wide-eyed, as always, and had that frightened look.

Molly dried the bottoms of his feet and his palms with a bandana.  “That wasn’t too bad,” she said.  We smiled at each other, but in her eyes, I could see the same pallor that had hung over everything since his birth, and, we both knew, always would.  She pursed her lips and blew out a breath.  We both sat up startled as an egret lifted out of a treetop and flew out towards the lake.

When we got back to the cabin, Ralph was coming down the path holding a flat box.  Marilyn walked behind him.

Ralph waved to us and said, “Hey, we have a little surprise.”

They stopped in front of us at the bottom of the path, and Ralph opened the box.  There were homemade brownies inside.

He said, “Linda sent these from Seattle for my birthday.  She’s the daughter who loves me.”

Molly smirked, then smiled.  I thought about early in our courtship when she told me that she’d been treated like a princess growing up, like she could do no wrong.

We went inside, and I put Sam down in his crib.  We all had drinks, chips, and dip on the front porch.  The end-of-summer shadows had lengthened, and a few more clouds had joined together to the northwest, tinged dark underneath.

After a while, Ralph went off for a sail in his little sabot.  The rest of us began his favorite meal for dinner.  I bar-b-qued chicken slathered with extra spicy sauce.  Molly and her mother made warm German potato salad and baked beans.  Sam awoke during his last feed of the day, but then fell asleep again, still listless from the seizure.

After dinner, we went down on the dock while the sun hung reluctantly below the bloated clouds.  We sat and watched it dip quietly behind the tips of the Selkirks just above Kalispell Island.  The sky there was all purple and pink, and those same colors were spread lightly across that side of the lake.  Molly sat next to Marilyn on the edge of the dock and watched her try to get Sam to kick his feet in the water.  Ralph and I were on chaise lounges facing the setting sun.

He said, “Aunt Ruth died early this morning.  She’s the one who lived in California.”

Molly and Marilyn turned and looked at him.  His face was still with the sunset on it.  Molly said, “Are you going down for the funeral?”

He frowned.  After a few seconds, he said, “Nah.  I didn’t know her well.”

My wife nodded slowly, then we were all quiet.  The barge that drove pilings from Copper Bay motored by slowly out in the lake.  It was a big gray metal boat that looked like an angular tug.  It went off past Four Mile Island towards Coolin.

“He’d better trot along before it rains,” I said,

“Let it rain, God,” said Ralph.  “I love a good summer storm.”

Some more clouds had gathered from the north over the upper lake, but were still high in the sky.  I said, “It just might.”

The light fell another octave as the sun crept behind the mountains for good.  The air suddenly had that lick of coolness that was different from what it had been.

Molly said, “Can we please go up now and open presents?”

We had Ralph sit at the head of the table with his gifts in front of him.  The rest of us sat around him.  There was a flash outside and the first roll of thunder tumbled down from the north as he was opening our card.  Inside was a gift certificate from a hardware store in Priest River for sixty-five dollars.

“One for each year,” Molly told him.

“Gee, thanks,” he said.

But I could tell he was pleased.  He opened Marilyn’s gift next, which was a pair of binoculars he’d bought himself in Sandpoint in June when she’d bought herself a salmon-colored cardigan that would be from him for her birthday. The second flash and roll of thunder tumbled much closer up the lake.  Leaves on the willow trees twirled outside.

We turned out the lights, and Sam squawked when we lit candles on a brownie and sang.  Ralph blew out the candles and darkness surrounded us.  Lightning lit the Selkirks once, then again brightly enough so that the lake was momentarily white.  Just after it, came a loud clap of thunder and its roll that jiggled the plates on the table.

Ralph said, “My.”

The first rain fell suddenly and lightly.  We knew then that it would only be a fast-moving shower.  We sat in the dark listening as the rain intensified briefly for a few minutes, then passed.  Molly let me take her hand, but didn’t return my squeeze.   Another scratch of lightning lit the sky and the thunder that followed it had moved south over Coolin.  The next combination was further off towards Mt. Spokane.

Marilyn turned the lights back on and clapped her hands in applause.  I did the same with Sam’s.  His head had begun to bob and his eyes were closing, so Molly took him off to bed.  Ralph was smiling, fingering his gifts.  The air had turned much cooler, a coolness that was at once relieving and caressing.

When Molly returned, we ate brownies covered with vanilla ice cream.  Then Ralph went down on the dock with his new binoculars, and I helped Marilyn clean up and do the dishes.  Molly told us she was going off to bed to read; I watched the back of her go off down the hall.

After the dishes were dried and put away, Marilyn went into the front room to watch television, and I took a bag of trash out to the root cellar.  Ralph was sitting in the old lawn chair we kept near the bar-b-que, the binoculars in his lap.  He had his head back looking up, I supposed, at the stars.  I had never seen him sit there before during the day or night.

He glanced at me and said, “Hey.”

I stored away the trash and stood on the river-rock patio we’d laid together the summer after Molly and I were married there five years before.  I looked up through the treetops in the direction he was.

I asked, “Looking for constellations?”

“I don’t know any constellations,” he said.  “I was going to learn about them, though, when I retired, as you probably remember.  I got that astronomy book a few birthdays ago.  I was going to do that sort of like I was going to learn to watercolor and lift dumbbells.”  He laughed once through his nose.  “Oh, I guess I’m really just sitting here thinking about my own mortality.”

I looked at him then.  He was a handsome man with salt and pepper hair.  I’d always admired him.  I said, “I suppose you’re entitled to do that.”

He was still looking up through the trees.  A few stars were back out after the storm’s passing.  He said, “I had a few surprises today.  Most of them were pretty nice.  That one about my aunt wasn’t.  Life’s full of surprises, I guess.”

I thought about that.  I thought about the spouses of two of our neighbors who had died suddenly during the last year; they were both in their mid-fifties.  I was forty-three.  I thought about Sam and his future, and felt my stomach fall, as it always did when I thought about that.

“Life is full of surprises,” he said again.  It came out quietly.  “I suppose you embrace the good ones and do the best you can with the ones that aren’t so hot.”

I nodded, though I knew he wasn’t looking at me.  I said, “That makes sense.”  Of course, I couldn’t know then that Sam would have all those pneumonias and hospitalizations upcoming, the tracheostomy and other surgeries, the wheelchair problems and round-the-clock care.  And nothing could have prepared me for the day a few years later when Molly would tell me that she’d become involved with another teacher at school, that she was leaving, that she was done settling, done being a martyr.

I heard Marilyn laugh inside at something on the television.  I’m sure Ralph had, too.  There was a faint rumble of thunder, but it was far away now.  The lake lapped at the shore.  Otherwise, it was quiet.  Nighttime there had a special stillness.  It made sleep run deep.  It was something I’d experience for only two more summers, but I didn’t know that then either.

Ralph sighed.  “Another day gone.  All in all, it’s been a pretty wonderful one.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “It has.”

 

 

BIO

William Cass has had over 150 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as decemberBriar Cliff Review, and Conium Review.  His children’s book, Sam, is scheduled for release in April, 2020.  Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Trainand Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal.  He lives in San Diego, California.

 

 

 

 

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