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November 2, 2004

Chapter 1 ... revised

Katelyn had chosen the perfect place to hide. Just a moment ago, she had stepped out onto the back steps, momentarily blinded by the brightness, the warmth, having almost forgotten that there was a world outside that didn't include bandages and the sickeningly sweet smell of pus and bleach. It was a typical Indian summer day; a bright blue sky with just a wisp of clouds off to the east, the sun beating on the south side of the house where the wind couldn't steal the warmth, and none of the pea-soup mugginess that coastal North Carolina was famous for. After the stale, musty darkness of the house, this was a refreshing slap in the face.

She sat on the steps and pulled a fresh pack of cigarettes out of her jacket pocket. There should be ceremony to this, she thought. Pulling out the foil wrapper, she carefully folded it into an origami swan, something she hadn't done for a good 20 years. She sat it on the step next to her. There, that should do it, thought Katelyn as she took out her first cigarette in 8 years. She stared out at the cotton fields that spread for miles around the house as she pulled out her lighter. The crop looked good, close to three feet tall with plenty of bolls ready to open. As she lit her cigarette, she lifted the lighter until it was just level with the horizon so that the field looked as thought it was being engulfed in flamed. It had been years since she played this game, too. She chuckled as she was taking her first drag and was, immediately, rewarded with a coughing fit.

"Shut up, it was worth it", she mumbled between spasms to the tiny foil swan.

Her father, Big Jack McKenna, had grown up here, learning early how to recognize the first signs of weevils and leaf drop before he learned how to read. It was all he knew, all he had. He loved this place and had put his entire life into making the place it was today. What a way to waste 50 years, thought Katelyn.

Normally, through much of September, he would have been out walking the fields, absentmindedly grooming plants as he walked. Occasionally, he would stop to stare off into the distance as though he were envisioning what it would look like when the bolls were ready. This was not a normal September day, though, and this would certainly not be a normal harvest.

Taking a long drag from her cigarette, Katelyn let the smoke stay in her lungs until it began to burn. If I'm going to go through the trouble of learning to smoke again, I might as well go all out, she thought as she tried to keep her breath from seeping out in wisps through her clenched lips. She was rewarded for her efforts by a not unpleasant yet slightly sickening tilt of the horizon.

Leaning back against the wall to enjoy the brief loss of control, Katelyn started feeling a little like she did in high school when she used to sneak out here to smoke at night while her father slept inside. What else did parents expect their kids to do? It was about all the entertainment they had here in the middle of nowhere. And here I am, trapped in this shithole again.

She really did hate the taste of smoke. She especially hated the smell that lingered in her hair and on her clothes afterwards, but she figured that it was the one legitimate reason she could use for stepping out of the house and getting some air every half hour or so, even if that air was polluted. Besides, it would piss her father off to know that she was smoking again. That was just an added bonus.

Katelyn let the warmth that the brick wall had absorbed in the morning sun to seep into her tight shoulder muscles. It had been weeks since she could get away to the gym and she was already feeling flabby. She had gone to go take a look around at Svelte, the poorest excuse for a gym that existed, but after that, she had no desire to join. This place was so backwoods compared to Alexandria. For one thing, there was no way she was staying long enough to make it worth the money. For another, the converted tobacco warehouse was filled with nothing but stationary bikes, aerobics classes and fat farmers wives in spandex and legwarmers. You could almost smell the desperation in their sweat. Katelyn knew that smell. It was the smell of a woman that would do anything to get back her girlish figure so that her husband would stop screwing the waitress at the local watering hole.

There was a chatty family of wrens fluttering at the feeder, amusing her. Katelyn could almost interpret what they were saying as they argued over who got the biggest sunflower seed, the best perch, the most time at the feeder. She let herself relax, listening in on their conversation, tilting her head back against the bricks, closing her eyes as the sun warmed her face, relaxing the frown lines. She could almost feel her freckles surfacing.


The call from inside the house shattered the silence, startling both her and the wren family. The birds, offended, quickly scattered, flying from the feeder up into the branches of the old dogwood. They each took scolding positions amongst the reddish leaves that stubbornly cling to the branches and began complaining noisily at Katelyn, as though she was the one that had disturbed their otherwise perfect morning.

"Hey, it wasn't me. I was just sitting here, minding my own business," she mumbled. Great, now I'm arguing with a flock of birds. She slowly began banging the back of her head against the bricks as she took the last few hurried drags of her half-smoked cigarette. When her head began to pound back, she slipped the remains of her cigarette under her heel and ground it into the brick step until it was shredded beyond recognition. I need to keep an ashtray out here, she thought as she carefully stood up, waiting for the slight dizziness to subside before turning around on the steps, always a trick. Built as though they were an afterthought, the shallow stairs were stuck on corner of the otherwise nondescript back of the brick house; no landing, no railing and no overhang, just perfect to take advantage of a climber's drunken unsteadiness, ready to fling them over the edge, teetering headfirst into the patches of thorny weeds that insisted on growing on either side. It had happened to Katelyn countless times in high school and she really didn't feel like explaining a tumble to her dad at this point, not unless it was worth it. Maybe later, I'll take up drinking again, she thought wryly.

She reluctantly stepped back into the dim house, carefully taking off her shoes on the mat next to the door while her eyes struggled to adjust. She stood blindly holding onto the counter, cursing her decision to not wear her sunglasses, as the shapes in the room began to emerge from the darkness. Trying not to breathe in too much of the stale inside air, she began walking toward the den, toward where she knew the voice had come from.

"What do you need, Dad?" she called out as she walked.

His back was to her when she stepped into the doorway. His tall frame was hunched over the roll top desk, shuffling through papers and poking into cubbyholes, looking frantically for something. He didn't even bother to look up when she spoke. On the floor at his feet, papers were strewn like snow, as if a blizzard had hit that corner of the den.

"I can't find the damn book of stamps! Where did you hide them?"

Katelyn took a deep breath, counting silently as she bit her tongue and walked over to the desk. She calmly opened the top left hand drawer of the desk, reached in and pulled out the roll of First in Flight Commemorative stamps. He was the one that had insisted that she buy the roll this time because he kept losing the booklets. They made them too damn small, he had said. He had also insisted that they be kept in the top left hand drawer of the desk so that he could always find them when he needed them. It was something he had ranted and raved about so much just yesterday that Katelyn couldn't see how he could have forgotten, though this was happening more often than not lately.

"They are right here, Dad, right where you told me to put them."

Taking them from her hand without so much as a thank you, her father turned and shuffled away, clearing a path through the fallout left on the floor, mumbling something about people hiding things from him, trying to make him look stupid.

Katelyn sighed as she bent over to clean up the mess, recognizing papers that she had just spent the past week arranging. He had gotten worse since she had moved away, grumpier, meaner. Now, this forgetfulness. Great, thought Katelyn, just what I need. The doctor she had met with earlier in the week had said that this would happen, that his demeanor would worsen as he began dealing with the reality of his prognosis. It was natural for a cancer patient to begin the grieving process just as they are beginning chemotherapy, what with all of the debilitating side effect he could suffer from. Something about having radioactive liquid pumped through your body made patients moody, he said with a gentle smile. She hated that the doctor felt he had to tell her to be patient with her father, as though he could read on her face how much she resented all of this.

It was more than just his grumpy forgetfulness that bothered Katelyn since she had come home but she hadn't talked to the doctor about this. He was so impatient with her, preferring to yell or grunt at her than actually talk to her. Ill as a snake, as they liked to say around here. Big Jack had always been a reticent man, even when Katelyn was a little girl, but it almost seemed as though he resented her being here, as if he was angry at her for putting her life on hold and coming to take care of him. Maybe she just noticed his erratic moods now that they were living together again. It had been so much easier to ignore him from 200 miles away. Now that they were living under one roof, especially this roof, his constant gruffness and seeming ingratitude was wearing her normally patient veneer thin.

Katelyn knew he resented that she insisted on moving back home but she had no choice. When she got the phone call from Sheriff Baker at 3 in the morning last week, she knew what she had to do. Apparently, there had been a call from a neighboring farmer reporting that Big Jack McKenna was out in his backyard, shooting randomly into the field and riding in widening circles on his riding mower. The sheriff, an old high school friend, went on to tell her that when he went to McKenna Farm to check on the complaint, he found Big Jack sitting on the ground, propped up against the mower that had, luckily, run out of gas, the empty shotgun lying across his lap, muttering to himself something about fucking it all anyway.

She had gotten out of bed and gone to the other room as she talked, trying not to disturb Michael, remarking that it sounded like something her father would do when he got drunk but she had no idea what had triggered it. Sheriff Tom, as the kids called him, reassured Katelyn that he had finally gotten him into bed, no easy feat since Big Jack weighed almost twice as much as he did. He had also noticed that several prescription bottles were smashed on the floor in the house and that it looked as though Big Jack had downed the better of a bottle of Bushmills, though he didn't think he had tried to overdose. Tom reassured her that Big Jack would be okay for the night but that she might think of coming down for a visit.

Katelyn called the local doctors office first thing in the morning, remembering that he had just had a follow-up appointment with old Doc Anderson the day before for something her father hadn't been too specific about. The doctor's voice was friendly, familiar, almost conspiratorial, when he told her that now that Big Jack's prognosis had worsened, it might be good to start thinking about either hospice care or permanent hospitalization. She was struck dumb. Apparently, the doctor had assumed that Katelyn knew all about the many trips to the doctor that Big Jack had been making. Katelyn, of course, knew nothing about any of this, but she played dumb, using her investigative journalist instincts to get as much information out of the doctor. This usually only worked with people that didn't know her too well. She pieced the evidence together until she had a better picture of just what had been happening to her father and how serious it really was.

As far as Katelyn could put together from what the doctor told her while assuming that she had already heard the story from her father, the experimental surgery that they had been hoping would put his cancer in remission had not worked. Yesterday's appointment had confirmed that the cancer had spread to his lymph nodes. Now he had just less than 3 months to live rather than the 6 they had originally predicted. He was probably angry at the world, especially the medical profession that he had very little faith in to begin with, mourning those three lost months in his own way. Being angry was one thing ... playing with guns while you are drunk and depressed is entirely something else. The last thing Katelyn wanted was her father living out his last days in jail for accidentally shooting someone or, even worse, offing himself in a fit of depression. Their family had gone through enough of that.

When Katelyn arrived at the farmhouse the next afternoon, she found that it wasn't just the prognosis that made him angry. She immediately noticed the absence of their formally decent furniture and her young stepmother. As it turned out, Lisa, his wife of 7 years, had left him, unable to cope with seeing him in pain, or at least that was the reason she wrote in the Dear Jack letter Katelyn found in the desk. In reality, she had become tired of her husband's strange ailments and more frequent doctor visits, not to mention the bills that had begun rolling in. Realizing that by sticking around she would be bound to stay until the bitter, and probably very messy, end, Lisa got out of there at the first chance she could, waiting until her husband had to stay overnight in the hospital for his surgery to pack up everything she could. By the time he got home, his house was almost stripped bare, with nothing but the oldest and ugliest furniture left behind and nothing but the farm truck to drive.

John saw the look on her daughters face as she took everything in and remarked, with quite a bit of sarcasm, that it was a good thing he hadn't gotten rid of all that old 'junk' that he had moved out into the barn for storage. When Lisa had moved in, she had insisted on buying all new furniture and tried to get Katelyn's father to either throw away or donate the furniture that had been in the McKenna family for ages. John's response was to move it out of sight, saying he would eventually get rid of it and hoping she would eventually forget about it.

"You know, if it wasn't for my laziness, I'd have nothing." he said, pointing out that Lisa had only taken everything that was new, everything that had potential value, and everything that she had picked out for them. The only things she left behind were the broken down pieces of junk like him.

Once Katelyn had finished straightening up the mess her father had made out of the desk, she fought the urge to step back outside for another cigarette. Instead, she followed him into the kitchen to see just what it was that he so desperately needed the stamps for. She found him sitting at the linoleum and chrome kitchen table that had been resurrected from her childhood, surrounded by piles of newspapers and bills with a cold cup of coffee and a sour look on his face.

Almost afraid to ask, Katelyn asked in a quiet voice, "Is there anything I can do for you, Dad?"

"Hell, there ain't nothing anyone can do for me now, Katie girl."

Her childhood nickname struck someplace deep, deflating her growing annoyance at her difficult father and his surly manner, softening her frown. She settled into the chair across the table from him and noticed, for the first time, how old he looked, how very fragile. His hair had thinned over the years, leaving just a bit of his soft, pink scalp exposed at the crown. She had to fight the urge to lean across the table and kiss the top of his head. Instead, she watched him puzzle over the piles, as if he was unsure where to even start in this flood of paperwork. As if none of it made any sense to him anymore. She was about to ask him if there was anything she could do again when she noticed a tear had rolled down his nose and fallen onto the phone bill he was leaning over.

She got up to make a fresh pot of coffee, not knowing how to handle her suddenly very human father. While the coffee brewed, she busied herself wiping the counter, taking down coffee mugs, pulling out silverware and the sugar bowl that was filled with yellow packets of sugar substitute. Then she took down the cookie jar from the shelf in the pantry and pulled out some of the biscotti she had picked up from the bakery in Alexandria before she had come down, two for each of them. When she could think of nothing else to keep her busy while the coffee brewed, she sat down across from him again, letting the sounds of the struggling coffeemaker fill the silence.

Big Jack had started sorting out the papers on the table while Katelyn had been outside, not willing to let her see just how behind he was, just how overwhelmed all of this made him feel. When he hadn't been able to find the stamps, though, and had to ask for help, well, that just about did him in. He never wanted her to see him like this, never wanted to get like this, like some feeble minded invalid who couldn't take care of himself. He was desperately trying to keep his emotions from overtaking him in front of his daughter, something he had always been able to do when she was a kid but now, here she was, looking at him like he was the kid, her eyes full of pity. I'd have been better off if I had taken the gun to myself. I'd rather die than have her pity.

His checkbook was open but, when Katelyn looked over, she noticed that the register hadn't been written in for quite some time. She knew better than to ask how he kept track of how much money he had in the bank. The last thing she wanted was for him to get angry again now that he had calmed down.

Instead she busied herself with the pile of newspapers, carefully organizing them by date and putting the sections back in order. She noticed, with some pride, it was her newspaper, the Washington Post, and not the tiny, Podunk local Rocky Mount Telegram that had a measly subscription of just under 15,000. She also noticed that almost every front page had a hole cut into it just above the fold, where one of her photographs would have been, accompanying the main story. In all this time, it hadn't occurred to her that her father even knew what she did for a living. Sure, she sent him framed photographs and he hung them up but she didn't realized that he connected it with her newspaper, that he cared about her life at all once she had left here. He sure hadn't shown it in the 24 years since she had been gone.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Prosemonkey published on November 2, 2004 9:08 AM.

Before I even get a chance to get going here... was the previous entry in this blog.

Chapter 2 ... in progress is the next entry in this blog.

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