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November 9, 2004

Chapter 5 ... in progress

Katelyn crushed her cigarette into the sandy soil at the edge of the field. After several days of rainy November weather and another completely overcast week, the cotton was ruined. Any fibers left in the bolls were drooping and dirty and all of it had begun to blacken and mildew. The stems of the plants were rotting from the inside out. Just like Dad, thought Katelyn.

The wind shifted and Katelyn almost gagged on the stench. She had smelled it before, that stench, when she was a teenager. It had rained for several days straight, tropical systems moving in and stalling overhead dumping feet of water, filling the river to overflowing. Creeks backed up and the runoff had no place to go but out, over the fields, filling them for two weeks until, slowly and finally, the river receded. After being underwater for that long, the plants had rotted and stood leaning away from where the river had come from, black and slimy. What made it worse was that most of the wildlife in the area had been caught, drowned, and then left, bloated and stranded when the water receded.

That year had ruined most of the local farmers, especially the ones that lived from year to year or had just bought new equipment but, for the McKennas, it was only a temporary setback. They were able to sell off enough equipment to make it through the winter and, as usual, Big Jack had set aside enough seed from the year before to plant the following spring, something he learned from his father after the Connor's fire. If they had saved seed over the year, they wouldn't have had to sell off their cotton picker to be able to afford seed, on top of losing their crop. That was one thing Katelyn hated about farming. You never knew when God was going to point his finger at your land and decide to reclaim it.

Katelyn had had enough of the smell; she couldn't put off going inside any more. It had become harder and harder to stay in the house lately but she couldn't keep making excuses to leave. Today she did have a legitimate excuse for leaving but, no matter how legitimate, she couldn't escape the guilt she felt while she was gone.

Walking around to the side door, Katelyn stomped her boots on the coir mat in the carport, trying to knock off the worst of the mud before going inside. Besides, making a ruckus announced her arrival to Barbara and, hopefully, gave her enough time to finish up whatever she was doing and get her dad decent before she went inside. At least Katelyn didn't have to stay at the house alone with him anymore. Barbara stayed at the house full-time now, just in case something happened in the middle of the night. They had agreed to sell off the last of the tractors to pay for the private hospice nurse but Barbara was worth it. Not only was Big Jack comfortable with her taking care of him, Katelyn found her to be very sympathetic to her situation. The two women had formed a quiet friendship that made Katelyn wish they had met during other circumstances.

Having all but knocked the soles off her boots, Katelyn finally slipped them off just inside the door and shrugged out of her coat. As she reached to hang it up, she caught the smell of cigarettes and coffee in her hair. She thought for just a second that she should go take a shower to wash away the smell of cigarettes but then she would be washing off the sensory reminder of her afternoon at the bookstore and she needed Bernie there with her today. It's not like her dad could smell anything anymore anyway.

"Ah, welcome home!" came Barbara's whisper from the kitchen door. She was leaning against the frame, looking tired but pleasant, as always. Since she was a private nurse, she didn't have to wear a uniform, but she usually wore a scrub top over her t-shirt and jeans anyway. Habit, she said, but Katelyn knew better. She wouldn't want to risk getting bodily fluids all over her clothes either. Then again, Katelyn could never do what Barbara did, not by a long shot. She had photographed dead bodies, of both people and animals, and seen blood run in rivers while out on assignment and it never bothered her. Watching the living die, now that was something totally different.

"Hi, Barb. How is he?" she whispered back automatically. She knew how he was. He had been the same way for weeks now. Don't tell me, he's resting comfortably ...

"Resting comfortably, now. We had a rough afternoon, though."

"Oh? What happened?" Katelyn pulled out a chair from the linoleum table and sat, wanting to be prepared before she faced him. She never quite knew what she was going to come home to.

"Well, your dad was in quite good spirits this afternoon when he woke up. He wanted to sit up, insisted he needed to get up and move around, stretch his muscles. He was very alert, more than he's been in a long time. He even remembered my name. Didn't call me Maeve for the first time in a long time."

Katelyn smiled, "Wow, that is an improvement." Barb did look a little like her Mom had in her younger days. She had the same dark hair, anyway. Big Jack had been calling her Maeve for the past couple of weeks. She suspected Barb kind of liked it.

"You know how your father is, he said he just wanted to go around the room so I helped him up, got him the walker, and we walked around the room. Everything was fine until he got to the window."

Oh no ...

"He was very upset, Katelyn. He said some things, well, let's just say I've never heard him talk like that, not even when I had to give him an enema."

Katelyn sighed, fearing the worse. She had warned him what would happen if he didn't let someone take the cotton out of the field.

"What happened, Barb?" Katelyn's head was in her hands, too ashamed to look up at her friend, her friend that must surely think she was a bad daughter, a monster for not taking care of her father, no matter if he wanted to be taken care of or not. She should have gone ahead and sold the cotton behind his back. It wasn't like he would have known about it. It had to be better than his seeing the fields like they were now.

"He started shaking and couldn't stop. I had to practically carry him back to bed, still talking but making less sense. I tried talking to him but he wasn't hearing me. He was so distraught I had to give him a sedative and he's been out since."

"When did this happen?"

"About 1 o'clock." Just after I left, thought Katelyn. It's almost as if he planned it.

"You couldn't have done anything to prevent it, Katelyn" said Barbara quietly. It was almost as if she could read Katelyn's mind but, in reality, she had seen the same look of guilt and regret cross the face of just about every family member she worked with. If they didn't react like this, Barbara would have been thought worse of them, even though she tried to be as unbiased as she could. She knew Katelyn loved her father but she also understood and accepted her other emotions.

"Can I see him?" Katelyn asked, almost wishing she would say no.

"Sure, want me to come with you?"

"No, I need some time alone with him, I think. I have some apologizing to do."

"Call me if you need me, Kate. I'll be out here. I think I'll make some coffee." Looks like it's gonna be a long night. Barbara knew this was it. She had seen it happen dozens of times before, a terminal patient getting a sudden burst of clarity and energy before they slipped away. He would gone by this time tomorrow.

Katelyn went to the kitchen sink, turning on the hot water and washing her hands with the antibacterial soap they kept on the counter. She scrubbed up to her elbows, holding her hands under the hot water a bit too long, her skin pinking under the steam. Barbara handed her a towel and, after drying off her hands, Katelyn used it to shut off the faucet. Funny the habits you get into, how you modify your life to accommodate when you have to.

Walking toward the door to the den, Katelyn took a calming breath, knowing she would have to deal with his anger when he woke up. If he woke up.

Just as Katelyn stepped into the den, the late afternoon sun poked through the clouds in the western sky and thin fingers of light reached in through the den window behind her father's bed, warming the metal rails, lighting the room with a persimmon glow. She was struck by how suddenly small he seemed, how Big Jack had seemed to shrink a little more each day. This afternoon, he seemed to be dwarfed by the bedding, extra pillows propping him up, blankets pulled up to his chin, tubes coming from his nose, his mouth, his arm and wires growing up from his neck into the quietly beeping monitor next to his bed. She noticed how slowly everything seemed to move, how his breathing seemed to be thicker, more deliberate, how his heart seemed to stop and think before each beat.

Katelyn pulled a chair up to the head of the hospice bed and sat near Big Jack, noticing how the sun gleamed off his scalp, noticing how bare it was, stubborn tufts of downy white hair all that was left. He always had the thickest hair, a wavy red mane that only recently had begun graying. Now, after the months of chemotherapy, it swiftly disappeared. Katelyn reached over to gently stroke his forehead and a small lump pulled away when she withdrew her fingers. She looked at it for a few seconds before slipping it into her pocket and placing her hands in her lap, wishing she could do something to let him know she was there. Reaching under the edge of the blanket, Katelyn found he father's hand and gingerly pulled it toward her. Holding it in one hand, she stroked the back of it with the other hand and sat, quietly humming a song she had played over and over on her way home today.

"... I can't help the feeling
I could blow through the ceiling
If I just turn and run
And it wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out
It wears me out..."

Earlier today, as she was sitting in the bookstore, stroking Cecil, who had abandoned his post by the door when she came in and followed her until she finally sat down so that he could curl up in her lap for a nap, that song had come on the radio station Bernie had playing. It was so strange that they would play it, too, since it was an older, not very popular Radiohead song but it had become her favorite lately, reassuring in its slow tempo but gut wrenching in its message. She had heard it in several odd places lately, not just her car as she drove back and forth to town, so it was almost as if someone was trying to tell her something. Suddenly, every time Katelyn heard it, she cried and this afternoon, as she sat gently stroking Cecil, in the middle of the bookstore, the tears had just started rolling down her cheeks before she even had time to stop them.

"... If I could be who you wanted.
If I could be who you wanted all the time
All the time"

She hadn't noticed that Bernie had come up behind her until he leaned over her to wrap his arms around her. It was a tender gesture, one of a friend that felt the need to comfort another friend, and Katelyn leaned back into him, letting the tears come. Bernie had seen how fragile she looked when she came in this afternoon, how she silently let Cecil curl up, how she was quietly singing along to "Fake Plastic Trees" and it was as if he heard the words for the first time. He suddenly saw through her tough independence to the reason why she was like that, why she held him at bay, why coming back here to be with her father was so difficult for her. All of this came to him in a flood of emotion, a kinetic force that made him move to her, made him need to hold her, despite the fact that they hadn't touched before. She smelled better than he imagined and she didn't scream or elbow him, which made him want to hold her all the more.

The song ended and she took a deep breath, trying to stop the tears, suddenly realizing Bernie was still holding her. She turned to kiss his cheek, to thank him, and tasted her own tears on his skin. Bernie mumbled something about getting them some coffee and, reluctantly, pulled away form her, trying very hard to concentrate on keeping his feet on the ground. Ever since the day Katelyn had called him, he had begun thinking that he actually meant something to her, something more than being the owner of a store she liked to visit. When he had answered the phone that night, it went almost as if he had imagined it would, and he had a pretty vivid imagination. He had been doing some bookkeeping, home on a Friday night. He knew he shouldn't be doing work at home, especially not on a weekend night, but he had nothing else to do, nothing else to look forward to, at least until he picked up the phone.

When it rang, he peeked a look at the number and, not recognizing it, almost didn't pick up but figured "what the hell, I can shoot the shit with a telemarketer" so he flipped open his phone and, with a mock New York accent, said "hey, how ya doin'?"

There was a short pause on the other end of the line. "Umm ... Bernie?"

"Yeah, sorry, hey, hi! I was just playin'. Who's this?" he asked, hoping he already knew but afraid it was just wishful thinking.

"Hey, it's Katelyn. You did say anytime, right?"

"Of course, and I meant it. What's up?" Just keep it cool and try not to sound desperate.
"I hope I'm not bothering you."

"Of course not," he answered, moving some papers around on his desk so it sounded like he had been doing something. "I was just finishing up some work. How are you doing?"

A pause, then a quiet "Not so good. I was hoping we could talk for a little bit,"

That was when Bernie knew he existed outside the store for Katelyn, that she actually thought of him when he wasn't there, and that was a good feeling, because he sure as hell had spent an inordinate amount of his free time thinking about her. They had talked for over an hour, Katelyn sitting on her back stairs, smoking cigarettes, Bernie lying on his living room floor to keep himself from pacing while he talked to work off his nerves. In the weeks since, their connection had deepened as they called each other just about every night, touching base, but Bernie still had so many unasked questions. And there was the little matter of this Michael guy.

Katelyn looked down at her lap now in the quiet sunset filled den, still holding her fathers hand, and noticed she still had some of Cecil's fur on her pants. She thought of Bernie, how important he had become to her over the past few weeks, if only as an unbiased friend. So far, they had talked about almost everything but what drove her out of the house and into his store. Something had changed today, though. She hadn't meant to cry in the bookstore, to let her father invade that formerly sacred space but Bernie seemed to accept it. His support of her frailty reinforced her original instincts about him.

She didn't think she would have broken down if she hadn't just gotten off the phone with Michael in the parking lot before going in. He seemed to genuinely miss her but something was nagging at her. He had called her back from a Richmond number that she didn't recognize and, when she questioned him about it, he told her that he was calling from work. Her bullshit detector had gone off immediately and she knew then that it was over. Just last week, he had called her from that same number and he had said he was over at Derek's house watching a game. He is such an idiot ... or else he thinks I'm an idiot.

So Michael was lying to her, and perhaps he had been lying to her the entire time she had been here. Perhaps he had been lying to her for years. Perhaps he's been making a fool of her all this time, after she had let him move in with her, after she had gotten him a job at the paper, after she had fallen in love with him. She had known he was up to something for a long time but she could never quite put her finger on it, always too involved with dealing with the small, everyday problems to even want to approach something as big as this could be. Anyway, what could she do now, from here. Katelyn had tried to shake off the phone call even as she entered the sanctuary of the mall, had tried to stop the avalanche. He was living in her apartment, supposedly taking care of her cat and plants and bills and everything she owned in the world. She had left everything in his hands and now she knew she couldn't trust him.

Katelyn wondered, briefly, if he wasn't just playing a game, to get her back for staying away for so long. It wouldn't be the first time. Michael always was dramatic, always pushing things to the edge just to see if he could resolve them. He loved to concoct elaborate stories about why he was late, why he had forgotten the milk, how the cat had gotten out when he came home. At first, Katelyn found it endearing, watching him dig himself a hole and then seeing if he could find a way out, and even pointing out small flaws in such a way so that he could continue building his story to its resolution. When he finally did admit fault, it was with such gratitude that she had played along, Kate couldn't even begin to get angry with him for the original offense which, by that time, hardly seemed to matter anymore. Their verbal jousting was one of the things they both claimed to adore about each other and Michael had always told her that he had never met a woman that had challenged him on so many levels before which, of course, make Katelyn soften, let down her guard. The recognition and flattery of her intellect seemed to have the opposite effect on her, making her stupider and stupider until, well, this ... she was a stupid cow for letting it get to this point.

Before she had left home, Michael had been sufficiently morose, clinging to her while she went over the list of things that needed to be taken care of in her absence, actually bursting in tears at one point, while she showed him where the cat treats were stored. HE had pulled her to him, murmuring words that were supposed to comfort her, that he would take care of everything and that he would be right here, waiting for her, when she came back. So much had changed over the past three months Katelyn didn't even know if she wanted him there when she got back, feeling that, in this moment she could kill him as soon as kiss him for making her feel so stupid. There really wasn't any other word for how she was feeling about him right now and, even as the weeks had passed and she had stayed here, she had begun realizing how little she should be trusting him. She was caught, though, stuck here until her father died and released her to go clean up her mess of a life, a mess that had been accumulating since the day she arrived here.

She really hadn't intended to stay for three months. She thought it would be a week or so, a cursory visit to get her father through whatever it was that he was going through and to fulfill her obligation as his only child. It wasn't until she got here that the enormity of her dilemma became apparent. She didn't know how, for someone that loved to claim her heritage, she could have forgotten what it meant to be the last surviving McKenna with no chance of keeping the name alive. After her father died, the farm would not be McKenna run anymore and they, as a family, would have nothing to show for the years of struggling they had done here.

Yes, coming here made her realize just how much she needed to be here. She hadn't expected this, to be facing her father's mortality, to be changing bandages and loyalties, to be reminded of so much history, so much that she had tried to forget. When Katelyn first got here, she had been acting like a petulant child, annoyed at having her life interrupted for her father's little dramatic lawnmower episode until she saw how lost her father really was. She took pity on him then, making sure he would take his medicine, brush his hair, wash behind his ears, mothering him until he would angrily growl that he wasn't incompetent, not yet anyway. She hadn't seen this coming, though, this complete deterioration of his faculties. She had expected, even hoped, that her father would just up and die one night in his sleep while he was still Big Jack, while he still had some dignity, before he had to suffer through his daughter wiping his ass and changing his bedding.

Katelyn really didn't expect her father to last this long and, as she looked over at him now, at his translucent freckled skin that wrinkled and sagged off of his angular face, she suddenly realized that this was it. This was what she had been waiting for, what she had been promising everyone was happening any day now. Any day now was here, tonight. Tonight, in this darkening room that they had both spent so much time in over the past few months, sitting next to each other without speaking, watching sports and news and weather and races, carrying on conversations about a million trivial things. They were passing time and they both knew it but they allowed it to pass without trying to slow the steady march, without trying to open any more wounds than had already been ripped open by the doctors and the weather and the bills. How could I not have seen it, thought Katelyn? How could I have let so much time pass before coming back? How could I not have seen why we have never gotten along, what held him back from loving me, no matter how I tried? How could I not have apologized for running away from his hopes, his dreams, leaving him to continue to plod on alone here, poisoning himself and struggling to keep this place going, knowing it was all going to fall apart in the end?

With sudden clarity, Katelyn realized that this was her last chance to tell him how she felt, to let him know everything that she had been holding inside for her whole life but, especially, for the last three months. It wouldn't change anything now and she knew he couldn't hear her, but she drew her chair closer to the metal rails of the bed, pulling his hand closer to her so that she could talk to him, quietly, as the night began drawing around them.

"Dad, I know you can't hear me ... but I had to tell you that I'm sorry for not being ... " Katelyn faltered. For not being what? For not being born a son? For not being a good enough daughter? She had no idea where she could go with this without being sarcastic and getting angry. Instead, she took a deep breath and just sat, holding his hand, listening to his gurgling breath growing calmer, waiting for him to die.

About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Prosemonkey published on November 9, 2004 9:05 AM.

Chapter 4 ... in progress was the previous entry in this blog.

Chapter 6 ... in progress is the next entry in this blog.

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