Short Story

What Do You Know? by William Cass

     After I visited my son in the convalescent wing, sang him his regular songs, rocked him, tucked him in, kissed him goodnight, I went out and sat in my car.  I was relieved he’d come through his latest surgical procedure and was back in his room.  After a few moments, it dawned on me: just another Saturday night alone, a pretty one with stars and a cool breeze.  I watched two of the orderlies come outside and smoke.  They were two guys I’d spent time with in the parents’ room watching sports on the TV when I came late and Charlie was already asleep.  On those nights, I’d unhook his tubes and wires, carry him in there, snuggle him, and listen to him breathe while we looked at the TV and commented now and then on whatever game was being played.

     I heard one of them say something, and then they both bent over laughing.  The first one said, “You don’t know.”

     The other one laughed some more.  “Neither do you.  You don’t know nothing.”

     I thought, “Who does?”

     After a while, they finished their cigarettes and went back inside.  The parking lot was empty.  As usual, no other parents had been signed in that day.  Of the fifteen months that Charlie had been there, I could usually count on one hand the number of parents that would visit during a given week.  Fifty-five beds, and most of the kids, even more disabled or medically fragile than Charlie, had been there for years.  I’d seen my wife’s name in the log a couple of dozen times, usually at odd hours, early in the morning or late at night.  That didn’t count the times when we first admitted him together after his really long pneumonia, the one that almost did him in, just before she left for good.

     I drove down the hill and stopped at a British-themed pub called the Shakespeare Tavern.  I’d never been in there before, but had driven past it plenty of times and wondered about it wedged in among the Mexican restaurants and coffee houses that were common in that section of San Diego.  It was about 9:30, and all that waited for me at home was that same quiet that fairly screamed and all the reminders and fitful sleep, if sleep would come at all.

***

     The place seemed friendly enough, dark, wooden, a UK soccer game on the TV, a lot of British accents.  I walked up to the bar and a bald bartender came over to me wiping his hands on a towel.

     “What’s yours then, mate?” he asked with a thick accent.

     I looked at the taps between us and shrugged.  He smiled and glanced quickly at the hospital band on my wrist.  Maybe he could see a mark where my wedding band had been, but I didn’t think so.  I was pretty sure it had been too long.  He took a pint glass, filled it half with stout and half with a lighter beer, and set it on a coaster in front of me.

     “Try that, then,” he said.  “Black and Tan.”

     I took a sip and nodded.  “Thanks.”

     “You betcha.”

     “Mix it around?”

     “No, mate.  Just sip it like that a little at a time.  You never been to our fair isle then?”

     I shook my head and took another swallow.  “It’s good.”

     “You betcha,” he said and glanced again at my wrist.  “Your wife in the hospital or something?”

     I shook my head.  “No wife anymore.  My son.”

     He nodded, then said, “Hope he comes out okay.  I really do.”

     “Thanks,” I said.  He smiled and went to wait on some new customers who had come in.

     I leaned my back against the bar and looked across the open room.  No one was playing at the dartboard in the corner.  Out the window next to it, I could see boats on the bay, the lights of the bridge, the tip of Point Loma.  Though it was May, little white Christmas tree bulbs were strung and lit around the windows.    I sipped the beer and thought about my wife who had left for Scotland with her lover the week before.  I knew about it only because she’d left some contact phone numbers on the answering machine in case there was an emergency with Charlie.  We’d talked a lot about traveling there before Charlie was born; in fact, it had been a dream of ours.  And now she was there.  I’d just written her another letter asking her to please come home…another pathetic variation on the same theme as all the others.  I knew her response would be the same as always, the same as always, whether to my uninvited visits, letters, or phone calls: absolute silence.

     My letters had eventually dwindled from daily to every other day to weekly to two or three a month.  It had been almost two years she’d been gone, and a year since she’d told me that she intended to go forward with a divorce.  And still I wrote.  I knew I would until the bitter end.  A man sitting at the bar shouted at something on the TV, and another one laughed. I looked out the window some more, watched the boats nod on the water.

     A few moments later, two women and a beefy man walked over from one of the tables to the dashboard.  The man and woman with red hair began playing darts.  The second woman was brown-haired and wore jeans and a white sweater.  She stood against the ledge under the window, holding the base of her glass against her waist.  I watched her push a strand of hair behind her ear.  Then she looked at me and smiled.  I swallowed, turned back to face the bar, and twirled my glass.  A groan came from the group from the group at the bar at something that had happened on the soccer match on TV.  The bartender stood off to the side watching the screen with the towel draped over his shoulder.

     I stared at the polished wood of the bar and tried to think about how much better Charlie had been doing the past month or so, how much his seizures and retching had decreased, how they’d been able to get his continuous feeds down to fifteen hours a day, how he hadn’t required admission to the main hospital for any significant respiratory or pulmonary problems for over six weeks, how nice the old Czech nurse was that cared for him at night, how he loved the wind chimes that hung from the tree in the Healing Garden, how he had hugged me back the Tuesday before for the first time in his life.

     Then I felt something brush against my shoulder and turned to see the brown-haired woman standing next to me.  She handed an empty pitcher to the bartender along with some money.  He began to refill the pitcher in front of us.  I could smell her light fragrance.  We both watched him pour until she turned to me, smiled, and said, “So are you having fun tonight?”

     I shrugged, and her smile lingered.  Her eyes were kind.  I realized that I was holding my breath.

     She said, “I work at a hospital.  I know those wristbands.”

     The bartender set the full pitcher in front of her and looked back and forth between us.

     “Well,” she said to me, then waited.  “I hope everything goes okay.  If you want to play darts, come on over.”

     I nodded, and she left.  I didn’t turn around.  I heard a train lumber past just across the freeway, the last southbound of the night, I guessed.  I didn’t know if my wife and her lover were traveling by train or not, though I guessed they were since she used to romanticize about going that way.

     I finished my beer and set the glass down.   The bartender watched me and asked, “Same again?

     I shook my head.

     “Well, you don’t want to be leaving just yet, mate.”  He nodded over toward the dartboard.  “Believe me, mate.  This is what I do for a living.  I know when I see what I see.”

     I didn’t look in her direction.  “No,” I said.  “I have to go.  Thanks.”  I put some bills on the bar and left without looking back.

***

     The next few months continued to be relatively good ones for Charlie.  He had two non-emergency surgeries on his kidneys and one to put in a vegus nerve stimulator to help control his seizures that had begun to rage badly again.  A new little boy was moved into his room in the fall whose father had emigrated from Jordan and came to visit his son almost every night, as well.  We were usually the only parents there, so I got to know him pretty well.  His wife had left them, too, but almost immediately after his son’s birth, and returned to Jordan.  Unlike me, he had divorced his wife soon after, but now she was back in the country trying to gain partial custody, he said, only to qualify for a portion of the malpractice settlement that was being hashed out in the courts in connection to complications at his son’s birth.  His bitterness was palatable, a feeling I understood but somehow didn’t share.

     One night, while we were holding our sons in the parents’ room, he asked why I hadn’t pursued a divorce myself.

     I said, “I guess I don’t know how you stop loving someone you love.”  I used the bandana Charlie wore around his neck to wipe the drool off his chin and shrugged. “For me, it would be like trying to stop loving him.”

     “She has.”

     “Maybe. You may be right,” I said.  “I don’t know.”

     In fact, I’d seen her name in the visitors’ log more often recently, but always immediately after her teaching day ended when she knew I would still be at work.  I’d put some photographs of the three of us on the little bulletin board over Charlie’s bed and found them rearranged one evening.  Another time, there were a few new clothes in his drawers folded precisely in her manner.  Although she never came to any of his appointments or procedures, I still called and left her a message whenever he had one upcoming, and then did the same to report the results afterwards.  Once, the director said that she’d called to confirm a surgery location, and I sat in the waiting room glancing up anxiously every time the door opened, but she never came.

     Then a late winter early dawn arrived when I went outside for my morning run and she was sitting on the front step with her head in her hands.  She looked up at me in the half-light with a tearless face that looked worn and hard and much older than I could have imagined.

     She said, “I don’t know what to say.”

     I just stood very still, my heart thudding away.  Sprinklers hissed on in a yard up the block.

     Finally I said, “Why are you here?”

     She looked out into the street.  “It’s over with him, dead.  I guess I’m wondering about trying again.”

     “Us, you mean?”

     She stared at me, made a small nod, then looked out into the street again.  A car went by slowly, its headlights washing across us.

     I sat down next to her and put my hand on one of hers.  She made no gesture in return, but left her hand there, her head turned down.  I asked, “What do you see happening?”

     She shrugged and was quiet for a long time.  Finally, I said, “Molly?”

     She looked back out into the street.  “I don’t know.  I guess start by doing simple things together.  Maybe see a counselor.”

     I nodded, though she didn’t see it.  I kept nodding and wondered why the exhilaration I’d expected if a moment like this somehow ever came stayed at bay.  I knew I had to ask what she would never bring up, so finally whispered, “Are you sorry at all?”

     I watched her swallow, but nothing on her face changed.  “I know you must have hurt pretty badly.  I’ve just been trying to take care of myself.”

     I couldn’t have sat more still or felt more empty.

     She said, “Charlie seems better.”

     “Yeah, he’s on a good stretch now.  I’m glad you’ve been seeing him.”

     She looked at me and said, “What does that mean?”

     My shoulders dropped.  I sighed, shook my head, said, “Nothing.  Just that.”

     We sat in silence then for a while.  The sky lightened a bit over the schoolyard across the street, pink, gray-blue.  A few birds began to twitter.

     “Okay,” she said and stood up.  “Maybe this weekend we can do something then.  I’ll call or else you can call me.”

     I stood up, too, but she was already walking through the gate to her car.  She got in and drove away without another word, without a glance my way.

     By Saturday, I hadn’t heard from her, so I phoned and suggested meeting for a picnic out at a lake near the Olympic Training Facility the next afternoon.  She said okay.  I admit that it was a stretch to try to recreate our first date of thirteen years earlier when we’d taken a basket of bread, cheese, chocolate, and raspberries into a cow pasture and drank wine from the bottle.  But she played along, it seemed to me, with something between mild interest and reluctant acknowledgement.

     Of course, it was awkward to be together again.  She did most of the talking, whether out of nervousness or self-possession, I couldn’t be sure.  She told me a lot about her teaching situation at the new school and her plans to pursue graduate studies.  She would definitely do that, she said, perhaps in art history, an area in which I’d never known her to have any interest.  But her lover, who had co-taught a high school class with her after having made an unsuccessful stab at graphic art, had introduced her to sketching.  She’d told me that they’d begun doing that on what she called “walk-abouts” they’d take in various area parks.  Perhaps she knew that I would realize those had taken place while I cared for our son on weekends when I understood them to be lesson planning.  If so, she certainly didn’t seem to care.

     At one point, I steered the conversation to Charlie and how well he had been doing.  She looked out over the reservoir and said, “They told us he’d be lucky to live five years.”

     I said, “I don’t remember that.”

     “I do,” she said.  “Distinctly.  That geneticist who explained things to us when he was in the NIC-U.”

     “Well, he’s sure proved that wrong, hasn’t he?  I’ll tell you, he’s my hero.”

     She nodded, still looking out over the water, then took a swig of wine from the bottle, which was the only time she drank from it. She didn’t say a word about leaving us or what had happened between us or with her lover.  I didn’t ask.  I watched her as she talked and looked for the lighthearted, hopeful girl with whom I’d fallen in love.  There were glimpses, particularly when I could coax a laugh, but she would quickly disappear behind the grim, guarded, detached hardness she seemed to mostly present to me.  I thought about how when she’d left, she’d simply said that she was done being a martyr and that she had a right to be happy.  I didn’t know what was going on inside of her just then, but happy was pretty far away from what it seemed to be.

     We walked back to our cars, and I reached forward to hug her, but she shrugged under my arms.  A sad smile creased her face.  She closed the door to her car, gave me a little wave, and drove away.

     The next day, the charge nurse at the convalescent wing called me at work to say that Charlie had begun vomiting blood and that they had determined that his fundoplication had gone bad.  She reminded me that such a thing wasn’t uncommon and that it wasn’t often serious as long as they could replace it right away, which they planned to do that afternoon.  I asked if they’d called Molly, and she said they had.

     I made it there in time for the pre-op, and the surgery went fine.  It took less than two hours, and we were in recovery for an even shorter period of time.  If Molly had come by, I hadn’t seen her, so I left her a message to let her know that things were okay.  I left her several more messages while I stayed with Charlie the next couple of days on the acute side until he’d recovered enough to return to his room in the convalescent wing.

     I went back to work the following morning.  Later that afternoon, my neighbor, Frank, came over while I was watering the potted plants on the front steps.  He and his wife had been pretty good friends of ours for a number of years.  Before Molly had left, we’d had one another over for bar-b-ques and had gone out on their sailboat a few times.  After Molly was gone, Frank checked up on me quite a bit, asked me to play racquetball, go to some ballgames, things like that.  He’d been through a similar thing with his first wife.  He was a quiet, unassuming guy for a lawyer.

     We caught up on work and such, and then he said, “Listen, Molly came to see me at the office yesterday.  She asked me to help with a divorce settlement for you guys, which I need you to know I’ll do only if you want.”

     We just looked at each other for a long moment while water dribbled over the edge of the pot I was watering.

     “Listen,” he said again.  “This could probably be the easiest, quickest divorce in the history of mankind.  She only wants a lump sum payment for her equity in the house based on the time while she was still here.  She says the down payment was all your money.  Joint legal custody of Charlie, which is just a technicality given where he is.  Nothing else.  She’ll pay for all the legal costs, which will be basically nil.”

     I knew my breathing was short and shallow.  We looked at each other some more.  Try as I might, I couldn’t keep my lower lip from trembling.

     Frank put a hand on my shoulder.  “Look, it’s your call.  I don’t give a damn about helping her, but I’d do it for you if you want.  In legal terms, it’s a hell of a settlement for you.  Sensational, if you want to know the comparative truth.  I’ve watched you suffer for going on three years now, watched how you care for your son.  Maybe it’s time for some closure and for you to move on.  I eventually came to that point, and there was somebody else out there for me.  That will happen for you, too.  Believe me.”

     I stood there, trying to swallow over the tightness in my throat.   Frank clapped me on the shoulder and said, “I could have the papers drawn up in a couple of hours.  She gave me lover boy’s fax number where I can send things up in San Francisco.”

     I felt a cold flush pass over me.  I looked away and tried not to appear stunned.

     “Listen,” I heard him say, “you think maybe it’s time?”

     I turned away, then nodded.  He squeezed my shoulder again and walked across the grass to his house.  I heard his front door open and close.  It was becoming dark.  The streetlamp on the corner had come on throwing its yellow light.  I wondered how anyone could ever truly know anything – love, in particular – for certain.  There was night-blooming jasmine on the small breeze.

***

     A couple of months afterward, Charlie  had a small surgery to reposition his testicles.  He’d been born with them up by his hips, which wasn’t terribly unusual for kids with his assortment of abnormalities.  But, they needed to try to move them back down their canals as far as possible.  Although there was no functional purpose for this in regards to his future, their anatomical placement could potentially lead to a higher incidence of cancer, so the procedure needed to be done.

     This time, I didn’t call Molly.  It meant admitting him to the main hospital again for several days, as well as the post-op that followed.  Things went fine, and like always, I spent each night with him in his room until he could return to the convalescent wing.  I’d eaten nothing but hospital cafeteria food for that period of time, so the night I put Charlie to bed in his old room, I drove down the hill thinking I’d stop at one of the Mexican places near the freeway.  Instead, when I passed the British pub, I made a quick U-turn and went inside.

     The place was nearly empty, just a few people at one of the tables in the corner and an old couple at the end of the bar.  The same bartender that had waited on me the other time was wiping glasses with a towel.  He looked up when I sat down in front of him at the bar and grinned.

     “Hey, mate,” he said.  “Long time, no see.  Black and Tan, then?”

     I nodded.  “Some fish and chips, too, if you have any.”

     “You betcha.”  He glanced at my wristband, but didn’t say anything about it.

     He filled the pint glass from the two taps, sat it on a coaster, then called my order into the kitchen.  I looked over at the empty dartboard and out the window next to it at the boats on the bay.  The tiny Christmas tree bulbs were still lit.  When I turned back, the bartender was standing across from me again with something in his hand.

     “Listen, mate,” he said.  “You remember the dark-haired woman that was here the one time you came in?  She asked me about you when she left and then wanted me to give you this if I saw you again.”  He handed me a stained cardboard coaster and grinned.  “I told you not to run off that night.”

     He grinned some more, then set silverware wrapped in a napkin next to my glass, and pushed through the swinging door back into the kitchen.  I turned the coaster over slowly and read what was written there.  It said simply: “I’d like it if you’d call me.  I’d like to see you.”  A phone number was written after her name.

     I put the coaster in my pocket and glanced at the old couple at the end of the bar.  They were hunched over talking quietly, their heads almost touching.  To slow my breathing, I took a long swallow of beer.  The bartended pushed back through the door and sat my plate of food in front of me.

     “Well?” he asked.

     “Looks good,” I told him.

     “Not the food.”

     I unwrapped the silverware slowly from the napkin.  When I looked up, he said,  “You know, you can smile now and then, mate.”

     So, I made a small attempt to match his own.  I looked over his shoulder at a tilted photograph of some green hills overlooking a blue sea.  I nodded at the picture and asked, “That home for you?”

     He turned to glance at it, then.  “The lovely Scottish isle of York.  A finer place you couldn’t ever find.  No place like home, you know, mate.”

     I felt my smile widen a bit and said, “That’s true.”

     He went down to the end of the bar to refill the old couple’s drinks.  I heard them chuckle and exchange remarks.  I looked at the photograph and wondered if Molly and her lover had been there.  I thought about the meeting I’d arranged the next morning between I knew suddenly that I wasn’t really hungry.  Just as suddenly, I realized that perhaps the only thing I did know was that I loved my son, loved him more than life itself, and that was all I could say that I had known for quite some time.  I hoped to know more – I thought I’d used to.  I knew that I didn’t understand what had happened with Molly and wasn’t sure what, if anything, I was capable of anymore in the way of personal risk.  Or intimacy, or anything of the sort.

     The bartender came back and took a cell phone out of his pocket.  He smiled and said, “There you go, mate.  No time like the present.”

     I shook my head and said, “Not now.  Maybe later, though. Who knows?”

     “You should, mate.”

     I nodded.  But the truth was that I didn’t know.  All I was certain of at the moment was that the next morning, I had to attend a meeting between Charlie’s surgeon, his pulmonologist, his neurologist, and his pediatrician to discuss his post-surgery care treatment plan.  I knew they would all be looking at their watches when that happened; they were busy people.  I’d contacted a nursing agency earlier that day to see about starting the process of bringing Charlie home to care for him there.  Surprisingly, given the scarcity of home-care nurses, they had someone immediately available whose patient had just passed away, so I was very excited.  I knew I would need the doctors’ “care team” blessing for that, so my plan was to wait until the end of the meeting to ask for their endorsement.  I hoped to get Charlie’s pediatrician, who was a nice and gentle man with young children of his own, to help expedite things.  I thought he would help.  I didn’t know about Molly, though I was pretty sure that, in the end, she wouldn’t fight my bringing Charlie home either.

     I moved some of the food around on my plate but knew then, suddenly, that I wasn’t really hungry.  Just as suddenly, I realized that perhaps the only thing I did know was that I loved my son, loved him more than life itself, and that was all I could say that I had known for quite some time.  I hoped to know more – I thought I used to.  I knew that I didn’t understand what had happened with Molly and wasn’t sure what, if anything, I was capable of in the way of personal risk.  Or intimacy, or anything of the sort.

     The bartender came back and took a cell phone from his pocket.  He smiled and handed it towards me.  “There you go, mate.  No time like the present.”

     I shook my head and said, “Not now.  Maybe later, though.  Who knows?”

     “You should, mate.”

     I nodded.  But, the truth was that it seemed inconceivable.  At that moment, all I really knew was that to have Charlie home again, to hear him breathing in the next room, to hold him whenever I wanted, to hear him squawk, to care for him whenever he needed it, to provide for him places and sounds and smells that might mean to him something like comfort and joy, to help him become whatever he could possibly become…well, I knew I couldn’t ask for anything better than that.  Of that, I was certain.

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