I wake shivering and certain that my life has no good end. Darkness does nothing more to block the cold than the thin sheet and thinner cotton knit blanket. My death is imminent. Even at seventeen I know this.
Somehow I sleep again. An anguished wail jerks me from a comfortable dream.
The sound is the cry of my mother. Her words are indistinguishable from the torment that drives them.
The blanket and sheet have grown toasty. My inevitable demise seems distant and less disturbing than the freezing air and cry for help. The prospect of chilling air against my skin weighs in against duty and compassion. Before I can give it the thought reason deserves, I yank back my covers and roll out of my comfort. The pathway to the bathroom is colder than usual.
My mother small frame is hunched over her dead husband. I don’t know he’s dead but he’s been dying for so long, I guess.
My mother confirms my assessment, saying, “We’ve got to move him!”
I don’t think about this. I just grab his other arm under the shoulder. He was big before cancer. Six four or five. Two hundred-twenty maybe. Lean and long but but well-muscled. Scary for a teenage boy just shy of six feet. His son is like him without the muscle. Skinny-assed version. It occurs for a moment that he should be the one beside his father’s cold, clammy body, pulling the dead man off the toilet to preserve his dignity. Where’s the justice.
We lift the dead weight. Even emaciated down to one-twenty it’s like dragging a deer through underbrush.
My mother struggles to hold up her end. “They can’t find him like this!”
I wonder if she might mean dead.
“He deserves some dignity,” she insists.
We’ve gotten him off the toilet and shit is running down my leg. His last act of defiance perpetrated against those who get to live on. The price I am paying comes about because his damn big feet won’t tuck under as we drag his uncooperative frame out of the tiny room. It’s a space too small for my almost six-feet. We scrape the walls in the effort. Bumping out one doorway and across the threshold of another, we avoid dropping my mother’s husband until we reach the bed.
My mother is sobbing.
I’m not sure what to do after we get his cancer ravished form situated in dignified postmortem alignment with the edges of the queen size mattress. I give my mother a one armed hug.
She clings to me for the requisite thirty seconds mandated by the Code of the West.
My duties seem complete. I stand apart and stare death in the face while my mother makes adjustments to its contretemps.
When I leave the room I keep going. Without direction or destination I dress and exit. Sleep seems insignificant and unlikely.
The alley behind the apartment behind the bar is lifeless in the frozen dark. Walking past the house of the girl I suddenly love more than I know I will ever be capable of telling only reminds me of my absolute isolation.
Wandering the empty streets of oh-dark-thirty, I remember something. At first it’s incidental, a distracting thing without consequence. But as it formulates begin to understand.
My grandfather was born in a barn. And he’s the best man I know.