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Everything After

by Ana Basile 5 months ago in Short Story · updated 5 months ago
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A short story

Photo by S. Mulcahey

Stratton cannot stand long making a rebuttal. His feet are cold on the pine floor and he needs to get going. The fleece jacket speaks to him again, this time with a toddler’s need for something now. He pulls the fleece from its hanger and shuts the closet with force, letting the others know his decision is final. At the back door, he finds his boots stuffed with green peppers.

Peppers.

He’d placed them there to prevent himself from leaving the house without pants and going places a waterfowl fleece tells him to go.

His mind, he remembers, is going.

The waiting room he now sits in has no tissue box. His cough is deep and uprooting, rising from something wrong; a failure in the pulmonary motherboard. He reaches under his metal chair to dispose the viscid mess, to scrape clean, but can go no farther than the spill of his own thigh. A bag of feed slung over a rail.

Wilson, heavy across his lap, looks up when a droplet hooks his snout. He extends his nose, then his tongue. Stratton looks away while the dog goes to work.

On the office door, a sign says he should please wait. The door had been a shade of bright yellow. It is chipped now and streaked with the muck of palms and fingers. Stratton imagines he could lift it from its hinges with little effort. Plucking lint from a sweater. Imitation crap.

“A coat of paint does not a door make. Ain’t that right, little buddy?”

Wilson does not reply. He understands this is a rhetorical question, different from others that imply action, such as You hungry, little buddy? and Walk? The dog has spent these first seven years of his life weighing such questions from the man others call Stratton.

In his youth, Stratton worked briefly for a man who built doors from thick slices of mahogany. Solid, good-looking doors. The man’s daughter was as close to marriage as he’d ever come. He sees her now, sitting as she was in a ladder-backed chair, smiling at his proposal. He’d wrapped himself around her legs and kissed her bare knees, his relief swelling to the point of pain. He would build doors and they would live with her father in the spacious, old house. His seed would append a deeply-rooted tree; her people had been prospectors who’d come to Butte to mine the Richest Hill on Earth, and though they had not found gold they’d done well with copper. He can’t remember her reasons for leaving… something he’d done or hadn't done. The memory triggers another buried deep. He tries to carry the thought of sex, the act of it, from the sterile laboratory of his mind into his body. Fieldwork. But nothing stirs where it should. A younger man’s game.

He jostles Wilson’s middle and raises a hand to his nose. A long draw brings him back to the yellow door and the road beyond it. “Buddy, I…” He tries to finish, to announce the next step, but there is fire in his throat.

On the wall, a typed sign reads: Placement of our guide dogs is provided free of charge to the blind recipients we serve. You can help today with a donation.

He fixes on the words until the letters blur into cotton bolls and twigs. This was a game he’d played with his brother, Robbie, when they were kids. On their backs in the snow, they would stare up at the naked oaks in search of spy codes hidden in the sprigs.

Later, snow-soaked, they’d trudge back to the house for warmed Ovaltine in the den and Green Hornet on the RCA. Their mother would hug the cold from them, her plump middle smelling always of something good, marzipan or baked bread. It would be soon though, soon and quick, that she would grow thin and unrecognizable with bones like dowsing rods and skin hung to dry. The funeral had been small. Before the year closed, their father married a woman far too young and indifferent to be anyone’s mother. He and Robbie could hear the noises their father made from the bedroom each night as if he were dragging a dresser across the floor. But always the furniture was the same the next morning.

Lorna was her name and the holidays were nothing but a bother. The tree their father brought home stood arthritic and bare in the den, ornaments never delivered from the attic. Eventually, he stopped bringing trees. Gifts were given though, and stockings hung from two masonry nails his mother had driven into the mantel. Stratton thought about those nails at will. He could, when he wanted, close his eyes and have it all: The speckled grey linoleum cold beneath his toes, his morning glass of milk, his mother's still-young hand reaching for a spoon, a pen, for something needed in a moment lived long ago. That was home. That, and Robbie running in the snow. Everything after was Lorna.

Poor Robbie. There’d been too much of him—six and a half feet barefooted, but he was kind and unobtrusive, ducking when he should, laughing at the jokes about the weather up there. In the winter of his 17th year, Robbie took to the pond, boot-skating with the legs of a baby giraffe. The ice cracked his skull and left him stupid. He was alive still, in a state home for the infirm. Stratton visited once a month, as he had for forty-seven years. He brought comics to read aloud—all of Robbie’s favorites, but Green Lantern, especially.

“Headed there after,” he says to Wilson. “Got this for Robbie.” He takes the Green Lantern ring from his breast pocket and hefts the weight in his palm, then slips it onto his finger and aims into the middle distance. In brightest day, in blackest night, beware my power...

The cowbell clangs against the entrance door, shattering the water in Stratton’s eyes. His hands fly to nowhere first, then to his face where they find tear ducts and pinch. A plump woman bordered by a fur hood makes her way to a chair and sinks to it.

“Sweet James, it’s labor out there!”

Wilson whines. Smells the snow.

“My, that’s an impressive English Springer. The lids are tight with hardly any haw. Show dog?”

“He’s a sporting dog. For ducks.” Stratton is curt. Show dogs rouse his ire. Nothing but ribbons and bows.

The woman’s cheeks rise high when she smiles, threatening to shut each eye. “I’m Noreen Durkin with the Church of Christian Science.”

She husks a drenched glove and presents a hand for shaking. Her knuckles remind him of boiled chicken bones, blanched and dried, ready for bouillon. He means to smile and accept her hand, a cued performance, dolphins rising to the waggle of a trainer’s fish. Instead, he studies his hand where it rests on Wilson. Swollen and yellow. A cantaloupe. I should offer her a slice.

For weeks now he suspects the confusion in his mind leaks like vapors, contaminating every room he enters. He clears his throat. “I’m a Presbyterian, miss. Born and raised and plan to die one.”

“Goodness no." The woman laughs. The hairs of her hood spear the corners of her mouth and stick there. "I’m not canvassing for souls, mister…?”

“Tom.”

“I have a Tom! My husband is a Tom.” She waves a flyer with Be a Part of Something printed in bold across the front. “I’m looking for audience members for our public access television show.”

He isn’t sure why he gave his first name. He’s been Stratton since high school, since they’d rushed him into Robbie’s recovery room and presented him like a fragment of clothing to a police dog. “Robbie, look at this person,” one of the doctors said, tapping Stratton on the head. “Who is this person?”

“Tom,” Robbie had said, sounding very much like himself.

“Yes. Very good. And who is Tom?”

Robbie reached up, opening and closing his hand like a baby signaling want. Open, close. Open, close. Stratton watched his brother’s strange ceremony of the hand and laughed. Robbie was being funny, like after the dentist when they joked he’d been given enough gas to knock out a Clydesdale.

“Robbie, stop being a wet rag and say something.”

Open, close. Open, close.

The neurologist told them it would be promising if Robbie could identify words and place them in respective categories: Apples: fruit. Dogs: pets. Whales: not pets. Tom: brother.

“Junior, look at Tommy,” his father said, leaning close, his lips against Robbie’s ear.

Tom hadn’t been Tommy and Robbie hadn’t been Junior since before Lorna.

Stratton knew when someone saw death coming. He’d seen it in his mother’s nurse when she told him it was time to take mommy’s hand. He refused, and so his father forced it, pinning him to his mother as her breathing crackled like water on a hot skillet. No one told him there would be no arrival of Death to carry off his mother’s soul the way men carried off unwilling brides in matinee picture shows. He was young, and no one had clarified. He feared he might not let go in time and be taken with her. He wailed and pulled as his mother died, palm pinned to his.

At fifteen, he stands beside his brother’s hospital bed and surmises that something like death is coming. He knows it will feel like a rounding up of animals before a storm. He and his father, Lorna, the hospital staff, will be safely penned while Death takes the one it wants.

A doctor leans over Robbie and says, “Your name is Robert Stratton. What is your brother’s last name?”

Robbie sends the doctor’s glasses flying with a single slap. Soon they will understand that Robbie’s words are gone. “Tom” is one of the few left in the basement of his damaged brain.

Open, close. Tom. Tom. Tom.

Back home, Stratton is given Robbie’s Chevy and all the college savings. He is given Robbie’s baseball cards, including the Mickey Mantle, and if they had fit, his father would have hoisted the jeans and flannels on him. Robbie can only wear coveralls now, the kind that zipper in the back to keep him from playing with the contents of his diaper.

Robbie doesn’t want this life, Stratton is sure of it. And if he could reach the old Robbie who lived there, in that high castle, he’d tell him the truth: You play with your own shit. You can’t feed yourself. You sit there staring at nothing all day, rubbing soft toys.

He has dreams of getting Robbie to the top of somewhere high and wheeling him off.

Months after the accident, there’s an advertisement in the Sears catalogue for a Royal Imperial fold-away comb, the kind a businessman might select. Stratton wants Robbie to have something special. The combs in the state facility are communal; they’re wheeled in once a day with other implements of hygiene, then wheeled away.

When he arrives, comb and chocolates in hand, the orderly points to a sign: No Hard Objects. “Bring something soft next time, like socks. Giving these people chocolate is like giving a baby baboon a bag of fresh shit.”

He slides the comb into the back pocket of his 501s and takes on the name Stratton.

Stratton does things Tom wouldn’t; he carries a church key bottle opener and loiters behind Woolworths with boys who wear steel-toe boots. They drive the Chevy onto lawns, burning long screeches of rubber. The first time he kicks a body in the back, low on the spine, the feeling of it lights his insides like the Fourth of July. He brings his steel-toe boot down again and again until a boy pulls him off saying they aren’t here to kill nobody, just having fun is all.

He tries to remember the name of that boy but the past feels like a film he saw long ago, and the actor’s name is lost to him. They’re old men now. Their potency gone, no longer alphas, the world barely notices and expects the same in return. I tried so hard to do right...

Noreen draws a red thermos from her satchel. She unscrews the lid and lets the steam heat her nose. “Would you like to reserve a seat or two? It’s free for the community. You can bring your blind kin.”

Stratton makes no reply.

“It’s not much to see, more of a listen. No one will be dancing is what I’m trying to say.” When she laughs, her bosom shakes and Stratton can’t help noticing. Not in that way, that way died for him long ago. He wonders what the woman smells of, and given the chance to lie with her would he smell anything other than metal. Everything smells like metal now, even gardenias.

Noreen extends two tickets, the kind for carnival rides. “It would be helpful to have a full audience.”

She isn’t as old as he thought. Without the scrunch of a smile, her skin is smooth, almost transparent. Tiny blue veins wind like the tendrils of a snapdragon over her cheeks.

“I don’t have any blind kin,” he says, “I’m here to make a donation.”

The fit comes again, deeper than before. Wilson leaps to the floor and Stratton pitches forward covering the eruption in his mouth.

"Oh my," Noreen says.

A woman opens the office door and smiles. “So sorry. I’ve been on the phone long distance. I’ve kept you both waiting.”

Noreen fumbles the contents of her satchel for a tissue. “Not me. I stepped in for a bit of warmth. It’s a labor out there!”

The woman nods. “It hasn’t stopped, has it?”

Stratton stands, gathering the bag at his feet. Inside is a bowl and a new bag of Purina. “This is Wilson. We have an appointment."

“What a handsome boy,” she says, patting his head. “And a good boy.”

“Yes, ma’am. I’ve got his papers right here. Pure breed. Do I have to sign something ?” The lump in his throat grows.

“Sign something?”

“Yes, ma’am, for the transfer of… for whoever gets him. They can renew his dog license. Can I visit, once he settles... if I'm able?”

The woman tilts her head apologetically. “We don’t take dogs here. We facilitate the placement of trained guide dogs in homes for the blind.”

Stratton touches his cheek, then his chest, and sways.

“He should sit,” the woman says, reaching for his arm.

“Tom, are you unwell? Is there someone we can call for you?”

“The waterfowl fleece…” Stratton says, his eyes filling.

...

With Wilson gone to the woman with the bouillon bones, Stratton knows there will be no one to hear his last words, but he plans them no less. He practices in bed, uttering sentences a man might say to his children gathered near: Keep the plows running or open the window and let the angels in. He revises until sleep stands at the door the way his mother had before she’d gotten sick. “Lights out, boys. Who loves you?”

Mama does.

His thoughts stray to the dark edge of sleep, where memories tangle with nonsense. The day is coming when he will not wake to the faux travertine wallpaper he’d meant to strip long ago. Tomorrow he’ll go down to the basement for a sponge, one of the large sea ones, and wet the paper until it peels. He will do this after he phones the woman to ask about Wilson. Is he happy? Has he settled? And tomorrow he will bring the Green Lantern ring to Robbie and it will grant him extraordinary powers. It will create an ember of green light, a barrier from the hostile, low-paid shit-cleaners who might hit Robbie or yank his limbs just because they can.

Stratton has been that protective barrier all these years, checking his brother’s body for bruises, slipping twenties, sometimes fifties, to orderlies for the absence of bedsores. He brings them donuts on Saturdays and naughty magazines in brown bags. The orderlies are rough-hewn. A wrong turn in life ended them here, cleaning filth from the folds of the infirm.

But with his Green Lantern ring, Robbie will create a powerful forcefield. He’ll use the ring to fly, to travel through hyperspace back, way back, to that day in the snow. And he won’t ever boot-skate. And he’ll make it so Lorna never comes. And mama will make us Ovaltine in the den. And Wilson will be there, too.

“In brightest day, in blackest night, beware my power...” Stratton says, and slips deep into sleep.

Short Story

About the author

Ana Basile

My heart belongs to stories and mechanical keyboards. (Is there a union for introverts? We should organize.)

Reader insights

Outstanding

Excellent work. Looking forward to reading more!

Top insight

  1. Compelling and original writing

    Creative use of language & vocab

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