Green Hills Literary Lantern

Fourth Step



            He’d been gone from Jacob’s more than three months when I glanced up at the back-bar mirror and spotted Archie Sunderman, half inside the door, getting up his nerve.  It was early June, after midnight when the door opened, letting in the quiet and the fresh air.  Everybody in the place turned around to look.


            Archie had to step sideways through that door to allow for his shoulders, and when he did, a thrill went around the room.  Women sat up straighter and crossed their legs, pressed their lips together to even out the color.  He was a little younger than me, maybe forty-five, but still.  His chest bubbled up under his shirt when he sat down next to you and ordered up his first shot of Old Grand Dad.  Your heart could pound a hole in your chest. 


            He always was a Type Two drinker—off and on.  Usually I could spot a drunk a mile off, the way they bulge and sag after enough years, faces red and smudged black under the eyes.  Takes one to know one, even though my face had stood up to it better than most.  I calculated he’d been drinking fairly hard for twenty years, still yet he looked like the bad boy you wanted to fall in love with you.


            A bar is filled with two types.  Type One loves to drink, doesn’t fight it or pay any mind to the red warning flags.  Type Two hates himself for it, fights like hell against it, and loses the battle almost every day.  Twos have something to lose.  I was actually a Two till they fired me from the hospital.  I’d been warned twice when this son-of-a-bitch pediatrician smelled it on me.  Four years of school, plus seven years at St. Joe as an RN—down the drain.  Then I got on SSI and my brother let me move into one of his places.  I switched to a One because they’re more cheerful than Twos.  A woman can’t afford not to be cheerful, especially when her bosom’s going south and her estrogen’s drying up on her.  Should have seen me in my day.  Ask anybody.  I was some looker, and I loved to catch a glimpse of us in the back-bar mirror, side by side—me petite and cheerful, Archie strong and moody.


            When he was crowding through the bar towards me, he looked like he did when I went with him a couple times to the meetings at Broadway Methodist.  Hang dog and miserable.  They had a room, the Fellowship Hall, where they made a big pot of coffee and let you smoke under their buzzing fluorescent lights.  It was like any other AA meeting, two solid hours of grief and guts laid out in front of you.  I could never stand it for long.  Nothing drove me to drink like an AA meeting.  But Archie tried hard and I always felt sorry for him—and guilty, too, for being so glad—when he showed up again at Jacob’s.


            He pushed in next to me where Jerry the night barkeep was freshening up my Jack and soda, easy on the soda. 


            “What’s up, Arch?” I asked him, reaching down for his crotch.  I was pretty far gone that night, and besides, I wanted all those women to know he was mine.


            He caught my hand and set it on the bar.  “Bonnie, you got to come with me,” he said.  I could tell he needed me, because he looked worse sober than he ever had drunk.


            “Honey, you know I’d do anything for you,” I told him. “Let’s have a drink first, then go.”  But he settled my tab with Jerry, peeling the ones off his roll with a calloused thumb.  The nail was black and I figured he must be working construction.  He picked up my pocketbook while I sucked down half my drink. 


            Soon as I stood up, I felt bad and told him I needed the Ladies.  But he hauled me out to my car and loaded me in.  I had to open the door and be sick before we ever got moving.  The streets were wet and the tires hissed and splashed as we pulled out of the lot. 


            Determined as he was to get out of the bar, I wondered if he’d kept up on his AA meetings.  I had a theory about Archie.  I thought he could have made it if they’d let him skip the Fourth Step, Make a searching and fearless moral inventory of yourself.  He could have probably muscled through the rest of those steps, if they hadn’t been so strict about making him do that inventory. So far, he couldn’t do it.  That fourth step sent him running for the bottle every time.


            He pulled over for me to be sick again, and when the car finally stopped, I raised my head.  We weren’t on my street.  I had the spins, so he looped my arm up over his shoulder and walked me up the sidewalk, glancing at the dark upstairs windows of a brick house. 


            It dawned on me:  their Willow house, the one they’d lost to the county for back taxes.  It looked different, but I still recognized it from when, now and then, back when they still owned it, I’d drive slow down Willow Avenue or through their alley out back.  I needed to see the wife every so often in her faded apron with her straggly hair, taking sheets off the clothesline.  It was no wonder he needed me to get him hard.


            “What in the hell are we doing here?” I said, but he kept marching.


            After a bit, I felt good enough to notice how ugly everything was.  It used to be a pretty neighborhood and a decent house, painted nice, the grass cut smooth and a lot of flowers.  Willow Avenue was shaded once with tall trees.  Dutch Elm disease took them, and these people didn’t care anything about flowers.  The yard had gone to weeds.  Inside they’d broken it up into small apartments, Archie said, and they’d done it poorly.  Still, I could see a little white string of her Lily of the Valley along the foundation.


            “She’s here,” he said.  “Lottie’s in there.” 


            “What?” I said.  “She’s bought it back?”


            “Naw,” he said, the skin cracking around his eyes and a fold hanging loose under his chin.  “Rents an apartment upstairs.”


            “What about the boy?” I asked, looking up at the darkened panes.


            “Henry’s gone,” said Archie.  “Long time now.  It’s her I need help with.”


            “You need my help with your wife?” I asked him.  I stepped back, then steadied myself against a telephone pole.   “You got some nerve, Archie Sunderman—”


            “She’s sick,” he said, looking away at the windows again.  “Cancer.  Female.”  He touched his belt buckle.  “Had three operations already.  I got to work, Bonnie, and I don’t know who else to ask.”  He kicked at a wad of dandelions with the toe of his boot.


            “What,” I said, rubbing at the creosote on my palm.  “Terminal?”


            “That’s what they’re saying,” he answered.  “And you’re a nurse.  You still remember your nursing, don’t you?”


            I remembered enough to help a woman die.  I almost asked him what on earth he thought he was doing, setting himself up to care-take a wife he’d barely seen in ten years.  God only knew how long she’d hang on.  But then it came to me.  It was the damn inventory.  He was measuring up all his debits and credits before it was too late. 


            I didn’t know how long I’d want to stay that sober.  What with the medication and all, you’d have to watch the drinking if you were helping a woman die.  But if it was helping him with his inventory, I might be willing to see which one of us three could hold out the longest.


            “You’d have to stay sober,” he said, reading my mind.  He squared his shoulders and stepped across the stubble of grass toward the house.  I wobbled on my heels beside him.  “She’s on a bed in the living room,” he said. “You can take the sofa.” 


            “There’s no bedroom?” I asked him.


            He stopped with a foot on the first porch step.  “She’s in the smallest apartment,” he said.  “She’s got to share the bath.”


            “A terminal patient’s got to be someplace with at least . . .”  But I stopped.  His face said it all.  He knew she’d want to die in her own house, even if it wasn’t hers anymore.  She’d saved up nickels and dimes to buy it, worked like a slave to fix it up.  And he’d lost it to the county.  Lord only knew what credits he’d have to pile up to balance that.


            “Well, is there a kitchen?” I asked him.  “I got to have some coffee.”  Archie slipped his key in the front door lock and kicked it open.  It smelled like rotten food and cockroaches, and I felt the bile again in my throat.  He stopped in the hallway.


            “I mean it, Bonnie,” he whispered.  “About the drinking.”  He ran his hand up the grimy banister, turned away and led me up the dark stairs.


            By morning I was ready to run.  She’d started thrashing and crying in the middle of the night, but she didn’t scream.  I’ll give her that.


            He’d told me during the night how he’d gone nosing around after her and the neighbors told him she was in County.  By the time Archie found her, she’d had three operations, lost her uterus and ovaries.  It was everywhere by then, and they said they’d done all they could for a woman who couldn’t pay.  Sent her home with nothing but pills.  Archie’d paid her back rent and moved her furniture. 


            By eight-thirty in the morning we’d already given her the pills three times, but he held her head again and we managed to get four more down her throat.  I was surprised how tender he could be, his leathery hand lifting the back of her neck.


            “Try to rest now, Mrs. Sunderman,” I said, tipping a glass of water to her mouth and holding a dribble rag under her chin.  I felt myself blush.  Over the years, I’d called her every name in the book, yukking it up with Archie.


            He slumped onto the sofa.  I watched the clock and after ten minutes of weeping and thrashing she finally laid back on the pillows.  I smoothed the sheets over what was left of her wrecked body.  The woman had had a bosom.  I’d never wanted to admit that.  But now, if not for her face on the pillows, you wouldn’t know there was a person in the bed.


            “If you expect me to do this,” I told Archie, “I’m going to have to get her something for this pain.  Jesus!”  I wiped the sweat out of my eyes and tried not to think about how bad I wanted a drink. 


            “All they gave you was pills?”


            He stood up.  “Bonnie, I got to go to work.  There’s some church ladies come every day about ’leven.”


            “These pills won’t keep her till then,” I said, stepping past him to block the door. 


            “I’m late already,” he said.  He reached for the doorknob and I knew that most of this woman’s hours were spent biting off her own tongue to keep from screaming.


            I drove like hell to Jacob’s, praying that Freddie Gorman would be there.  He still had a practice, but most of the town knew he’d been practically living at the bar since his wife left.  Even though he was there every morning, regular as the sun, I almost bawled when I saw him, the cup of coffee and a shot in front of him.  The other regulars were drinking quiet, heads bowed over the bar, and Shirley was mopping around the tables in the back.  I braced myself against Freddie’s shoulder and downed his shot, then stepped up on the rail to reach over the bar for the bottle of well whiskey.


            “Christ, Bonnie.”  He leaned away from me and stared.


            I hollered over my shoulder.  “Shirley, I need a drink!”  She shrugged and picked up her bucket.  I poured another, spilling some on the bar, and threw it back.


            Freddie turned to face me.  “What on earth’s the matter with you?”  I sat for a minute next to him, waiting for the booze to kick in.  Shirley snatched up three or four empties along the bar, her stubby fingers between their necks, and shuffled back to the sink.  She dropped the brown bottles down the shoot to the basement.  We could hear them slide.  I reached again for the whiskey, but Freddie stopped my hand.  “Tell me.”


            “It’s Archie Sunderman’s wife.”  His eyes popped just a little, but Freddie, he’s a class act.  He let me tell it without breaking in.  He poured me another one and I sipped it slow.  “She’s got to have morphine, Doc.  It’s a crime to let her suffer this way.”


            He nodded, then finished my shot himself.  He set the glass down softly and drummed his fingers on the bar.  “I could get it for you at the hospital, but . . .”  I knew what he was thinking.  You can’t just hand over morphine to an alcoholic that’s been thrown out of nursing.


            “I don’t think she’ll last very long,” I said, studying the label of the bottle.  “If that helps any.”


            “You been drinking all night?” he asked me.


            “No,” I told him.  He frowned.  “Well, I did drink last night, but I sobered up.”  I looked in his face then, to show I was honest.  “I can do this, Freddie.”  He glanced at my fingers, gripping his empty shot glass, and I let go and folded my hands in my lap.


            “Well, God knows I couldn’t,” said Freddie.  He dug in his pocket for his keys.


            “I’ve got an hour at the outside,” I said, “before she comes out of those pills.” 


            “I don’t need that long,” he said.  “You get some coffee now, something to eat.”


            Before he even hit the door, Shirley set me up with a cup of coffee and a package of Hostess donuts. She knew the stories.  She knew Freddie’s and Archie’s, and she knew mine. I’d forgot my cigarettes, so she loaned me two menthols and I smoked and nibbled on a donut.  I suppose fifteen minutes went by before I could get my nerve up to ask her.  I found a ten in my pocketbook and passed it over to her.  She waved it off with a rare smile, making it harder.  But a person can only stand so much. 


            “Give me a fifth of Jack, Shirley.”  She didn’t even flinch.  Grabbed the bottle off the back bar, stuffed it in a bag, and shoved it at me. She charged me, then, for the donuts and coffee too.  Fuck her.  With what I was in for, I could afford the disapproval of some bitch bartender.  I grabbed the donuts and waited for Freddie in my car.


            I ran all the way up the stairs and past the three women with their Bibles crowded into the middle of the room.  Another one was at the bed, pressing Mrs. Sunderman’s shoulders back on the pillows.  Those pills hadn’t lasted an hour.


            “Who are you?” the mousy woman at the bed asked me.


            “You’re going to have to help me,” I said. I drew the hypo like a pro and tapped it with my broken fingernail.  The woman supported her elbow, exposing the purple vein. In seconds, the morphine hit her body and she let out a half moan, half sob and sagged back on her stained pillows.  Again, I felt like bawling with pure gratitude.


            “Now give me a hand changing her clothes,” I told the woman.  She blinked her little black eyes, taking in my dress with my boobs half falling out of it.  I started to unpack the paper sacks Freddie had given me: a mess of hospital gowns and sheets, thermometer, rubbing alcohol, Listerine, powder.  He’d thought of a toothbrush for me, two of them in the bedpan along with the rest of the morphine.  He’d handed over a month’s supply.


            “I’m Virginia,” she said, taking things from me as I pulled them out of the sacks.  “I’ve known Lottie since we were girls.”


            “Bonnie,” I said.  “Friend of the family.”


            The other women were praying out loud now, praising God for Lottie’s release and humming a hymn in their wavery voices. 


            “Get them out of here,” I whispered to Virginia as we pulled back the sheets and unbuttoned the dirty cotton gown.  The room was already humid as hell from last night’s rain.  “Send them for a window fan.  And chicken broth.” 


            Virginia herded the others towards the door, calling them Sister this and Sister that, shutting them out in the hall.  As we pulled the clothes off Mrs. Sunderman’s body, we heard their heavy shoes clumping down the stairs.  I ran warm water in a basin and we sponged her legs and belly, criss-crossed with angry red scars.  I soaped her arms and wiped them dry, worked them into the sleeves of a clean gown.  Then we rolled her side-to-side and smoothed a crisp sheet over the mattress.


            When we finished, I told Virginia to stay with her.  I searched her closet for something to wear, finding a wraparound housedress, underwear, and a towel.  In the little bathroom down the hall, I ran a shallow tub and washed, scrubbed off my makeup. The clothes were too large, except in the bosom.  I tore a toothbrush out of its box. 


            I looked hard in the cracked mirror.  I’d found the nurse again.  With a wad of toilet paper, I mopped her wet face.


            Virginia had found a jar of Lipton and stirred up two tall glasses.  She’d lifted the window higher and a weak breeze moved the curtains.  We carried the kitchen chairs to the window and sat beside it, sipping quietly.  While she talked, I dug in my pocketbook for cigarettes and lit one.  She watched me close, her little eyes full of questions.  Like how I’d got ahold of enough morphine to kill an elephant.


            “Just like Archie to come around too late,” she said, trying to press a button.  “I believe he’s on the wagon for the moment.”  You never knew about church people, whether you could trust them or not.  A trickle of sweat ran down my back and I figured she’d tell Archie if I took a nip to settle my nerves.


             “Maybe he just wants to make things right between them,” I said.  I reached for my tea, but my hand shook so bad I just held it in my lap. 


            She started in on Archie then, the story of their pitiful marriage, how he’d rejected his wife.  Lottie’d been wild in her youth, Virginia said, and I just about dropped my teeth.  “Her?” I said, plucking at the plain old housedress I had on.  I’d only seen her hanging her sheets or tending her Lily of the Valley.  But before they’d met when she was still a young girl, some rich boy’d gotten her pregnant.  Her great crime, according to Virginia, was to go to Red Oak and get it taken care of.  Every woman in town had known about Red Oak back then, and half of them had been there.  I’d steered a few patients there myself.  According to Virginia, Archie never would forgive his wife for that mistake.


            “And even before then,” she said, fingering the donut on a napkin in her lap, “you think he’d help her buy this house?”  She turned down the corners of her mouth and shook her head slow.  “Had to sell the only worthwhile thing she had.  Or half of it.”


I’d noticed the neck of the bottle, wrapped in paper, sticking up out of my pocketbook, but she was in the thick of her story.  “Half of what?”


            “Her bedroom suite, kid,” she said.  “Lookie here.”  She set her donut on the floor and padded softly to the antique vanity, running her hand along the curve of the mirror.  “It’s a real antique, and she had the bed too, had to sell it.  She kept a nice house, Lottie Sunderman did, but they never had anything, is what I’m saying.  Except for her bedroom suite.  But kid, she wanted to buy this house.  Broke her heart to break up that set.” 


She tiptoed back to her chair.  I tried to picture that bed, and she read my mind.  “It was a four-poster,” she said, reaching up and cupping her hands, “with them little pineapples on top.  No, it was acorns, an acorn perched on top of each post.  And carved so pretty, just like that vanity.  A matching set.”  I could see it then, made up with a quilt. 


 “But look at him now!” said Virginia, wiping the sweat off her tea glass and flicking her eyes at me.  “Rescued her from County, moved her back into this house, brung you in to nurse her.  Looks like Archie’s a new man.”


            “Where’s the boy?” I asked. “Henry.” I cinched the belt tighter on the dress.


            “Oh, kid, he couldn’t wait to get away.  Gone off and became a carpenter.  Archie was no prize catch of a husband.  He was a known drunk and a jailbird besides.  Did you know he’s been in Leavenworth?”  Everybody in town knew that, and I scraped my chair on the floor, scooting back.  She kept on talking natural, but one eyebrow sat a little higher on her face.  She knew she’d found a nerve.  My thighs were stuck together with sweat.


            She bit into the donut and kept talking, her words choked and muffled. “She pushed Henry so hard, scared to death he’d turn out like his father.  Smart as a whip, Henry.  But he turned on her, too, and she was the one that raised him.  Archie never would come home from the bar.”


            Her eyes drifted down to that bottle in my pocketbook.  I stood up and yanked the curtains back.  “It’s an oven in here,” I said.  “Where in the hell’s that fan?”


            It was bent and rusted, but the fan they brought was spinning in the window.  Mrs. Sunderman slept.  Her skin was hot to the touch, so I put a cool rag on her head and another across her collarbones.  I powdered her arms.  I’d rinsed out her gown and my dress, stood on a chair and hung them from the curtain rod.  The fan had nearly dried them.


            By afternoon, I’d eaten a packet of soda crackers and mostly stopped shaking.  Plus, for the first time in a long time, I felt proud of a day’s work.  I was laying down on the sofa when I heard Archie’s step on the stairs, slow and full of dread.  He set something heavy on the floor in the hallway and pushed the door open a foot, poking his head in first.


            He took in the fan at the window, the medical supplies lined up on the vanity, the clean sheets, and her peaceful face on the pillow.  He actually smiled, stepping sideways into the room.  He pushed out his lower lip in a nod of wonder.


            Then the grateful smile broke up and he bowed his head.  I leaped off the sofa and took him in my arms.  His shoulders shook, he was so relieved to have help, and I cried with him. We turned and gazed at her then, like we were looking at our own child.


            “Freddie?” he asked.


            “Yep, he came through with all this stuff,” I told him. 


             “I brought something,” he said.  He reached into the hall for a paper sack and I took it to the kitchen while he got the rest.  He’d bought us eggs, bread, butter, coffee and some cheese.  I’d pulled her frying pan out of the cupboard when I heard him set something down on the floor, heavy like before.  I couldn’t believe it when I saw what he’d done.


            “Does it match?” he asked me.  He ran his blackened thumbnail over the carving on the front of the vanity, then did the same with the heavy carved footboard he’d hauled up the stairs.  “I’ve got the headboard downstairs in the truck.”


            “What truck?” I asked, parting the curtains and peering into the street.  In the fading light, I spotted a battered pickup at the curb, a headboard and box springs in the bed.


            “I think it kind of matches,” he said, his voice cracking with hope.  But her vanity was old, turned almost a fruitwood color.  This footboard was a newer, lighter oak.


            “It’s supposed to have acorns,” I said.  “It was a four-poster.”


            He frowned and pushed out his lower lip.  “That’s right,” he said.  “I’d forgot.”  And then it dawned on him and his eyes got suspicious.  “How’d you know?”


            “That woman,” I said.  “Virginia.”  At that his face went sour, thinking we’d spent the afternoon talking about him and his transgressions.  He lifted the footboard.


            “Archie, let it wait,” I whispered.  “I’ll make us some eggs.”


            “The man said I had to bring it back tonight,” he said, “if it didn’t match.”  He turned sideways in the doorjamb, wouldn’t look me in the eye. “To get my money back.” 


            “Archie!” I said, louder.  She moved in the bed and he glared at me then, the old Archie stepping out from behind the new one.  So I lowered my voice.  “Archie, stay here, honey.  Please.  I been here all day and I haven’t had a drop.”


            “I got to get the truck back.”  He lumbered back down the stairs and out the door. 


            I scrambled an egg and made another glass of tea.  I made three eggs for him and four slices of toast, set it in the oven to keep it warm.  I wrote him a note, Food in Oven, before I laid down on the sofa.  When I woke up in the dark, he was on the floor, tangled in the mess of dirty sheets from her bed.  Mrs. Sunderman slept on.  The eggs had turned to rubber and the toast was rock hard.




            He left early the next morning, and so I was alone when she woke up.  She whimpered right away, and I tried to soothe her as I prepped her arm for the shot. 


            “I’m a nurse, Mrs. Sunderman,” I said, lifting her elbow and tapping the vein.


            She offered her arm meekly then, her eyes huge in the shrunken face.  I gave her less this time, so she could stay awake, and after a few minutes, the drug made her giddy.  


            “A nurse,” she said, pressing the cotton ball into the bend of her elbow.  “Little bitty thing like you.”


            I chattered while I helped her sit up and use the bedpan, changed her gown.  My old skills kicked in, reminding me to turn my eyes away while her body was exposed.


            “Feel better?” I asked.


            “I do, I feel better,” she said.


            I took the bedpan down the hall and then went to the kitchen to warm some broth.  It’d be a miracle if she could eat, but in nursing they teach you to try.  When I came back with the bowl, she was peering at herself in the mirror of her vanity.


            “I look a mess,” she said, her voice quivering in the air.  She tried to arrange her frizzy curls over the patches of scalp. 


            “You look just fine,” I said, sitting down beside her. 


            “Yes, I’m just fine,” she said, smiling.  She was weak as a cat, so I fed her the broth.  She managed a few teaspoons before vomiting, and we changed her gown again, the pillowcase, too.  Maybe I’d misjudged the dose, given her too much, because she fell back against the pillows and closed her eyes.  “I can’t eat,” she murmured.


            “My name’s Bonnie,” I said.  “I’m an RN.  Retired.” 


            “Retired.”  She didn’t open her eyes.  “I’m Lottie.” 


            “Lottie,” I said, but it felt like disrespect.  She was still sleeping when Archie came home.




            During the eight days I nursed Mrs. Sunderman, Archie brought a different footboard up the stairs almost every night.  He was on a salvage job, the demolition of an old house, and after quitting time each day, he’d drive my car to antique shops to look at their beds.  I’d told him there had to be acorns, and still he kept hauling heavy footboards up the stairs, all wrong.  His moral inventory was wrong-headed, too. The way he was going about it was to list all the things she’d ever lost on account of him and drag them up those steps.  He brought little things—a transistor radio, an old painting of flowers in a jar, a table lamp with a torn shade.  But the bed was his top priority.


            “Take me with you to a meeting,” I begged him.  He was plugging in the lamp behind the vanity.  I figured he was attending AA at Broadway Methodist a few times a week.  “First time in my life I’m trying to stay sober.  I could use a little moral support.”


            “Moral support,” she said from her pillows.  Archie jumped, but I was used to her repeating game.  She was about ready to sleep, and we could have slipped out.


             “We don’t have time for meetings,” he said.  When he finished with the lamp, he found some reason to leave.


            He didn’t seem to mind that in the days I’d been nursing her, they’d never talked.  He didn’t seem to think his inventory included conversation.  To my way of thinking, he owed her a lot more than a bed, but he stayed gone most of her waking hours.  The few times she was awake, she looked at him, confused, and pulled the sheet up around her neck.  


            I kept experimenting with the morphine, but either she’d start to twist and moan after only an hour or I’d knock her out for four.


            On the fourth day, I was going stir crazy while she slept.  The radio was nothing but static, except for a station that played sad old songs. Three or four times already, I’d gone through her two copies of Ladies Home Journal.  Deep in her closet I found a Bible and an old scrapbook.  I tried the Bible first, for moral support, reading in places where she’d underlined.  In church, they’ll tell you the Old Testament doesn’t matter anymore, but she’d drawn a wavery pencil line under some verses in the Psalms.  He that keepeth thee will not slumber.  Behold, he that keepeth Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.  Well, I thought, He’s sleeping on you now, old girl.  But then I thought, maybe not.  Maybe it was Him that brought me to her.  Being sober will make you think odd thoughts. 


            I flipped further on to the book of Matthew.  With a blue pen, she’d marked all the Blessed-art-thous, and the Lord’s Prayer, words of Jesus, printed in red.  Way back in the tiny book of James, she’d marked a page with her tithing envelope from church.  Her pencil mark again: Confess your sins to one another that you may be healed. 


            I untied the black ribbon around the scrapbook and thumbed through the pictures, mixed up and out of order. The little black corners had come unglued and the edges of the pictures were turning brown.  There was the boy with a baseball glove, and him up on Archie’s shoulders, both of them grinning.  There was the wedding picture, her wearing gloves and Archie looking shit-faced.  Her hair was thick then and fell past her shoulders.  Another one showed the two of them standing on the porch of this house, old and broken down even then. 


            The radio played Robert Goulet, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” and it felt natural to reach down into my pocketbook for the bottle and pour a shot into my tea.  I didn’t drink it for a good minute, just kept paging through the scraps of her life.  Then I shut that book and tied the ribbon so tight it broke.  I drank down my whole glass and shoved those books deep in the closet. 


            After two more shots, I snuck to the kitchen and rinsed my mouth with Listerine.  




            On Monday, seven days after I’d come to the Willow house, he found the bed.  His step on the stairs was quicker, anxious, and I opened the door for him when he reached the top.  It was battered, not as nice as the vanity, but Virginia had been right about those pretty acorns, one perched on top of each post. 


            “This is it, Archie!” I whispered, helping him haul it into the room. 


But he didn’t look happy, just ran a thumb over a gash in the wood.  “Got to get some stain for that,” he said.  “What color would you say?”


            “Fruitwood, maybe,” I told him, wishing he’d just stop a minute and celebrate.  “I can try some Pledge on it.”  I’d been walking to Jacobs every afternoon for a bottle, and I was hitting the tea harder than I should, having about as much success dosing myself as I was her.  “Honey, sit down and eat.  I made a meatloaf for you.”


            “I got them holding a mattress for me at the Goodwill,” he said.


            “Tonight yet?”  He looked dead on his feet.


            “When the hell do you think I ought to do it, Bonnie?”  He grabbed the back of his neck.  “How long you think I’ve got?”


            We both looked at her then, and he was right.  She hadn’t eaten more than a soda cracker since I’d been on the job.


            He went out again and I drank two more glasses of strong tea before he came back around ten.  We set up the bed between hers and the sofa.  It took up every bit of space in the room, but we managed and it looked so pretty I hugged him and kissed him on the mouth, something I hadn’t done all the while I’d been there. 


            “You been drinking,” he said, turning an ugly face on me.


            “Not much,” I said, stepping back.  “Archie, I can’t just . . .”


            “I give you charge of a dying woman and you’re drunk!”  He was shouting by then.


            “Not drunk,” I whispered.  “Just keeping body and soul together.  Here,” I said, pulling back the sheet on the acorn bed.  “I’ll take the sofa, honey, and you get some rest.”


            He balled his fists.  “Call yourself a nurse,” he said through his teeth.  I looked away, but the mirror of the vanity showed me his face, all meanness and desperation.


            “Well, let me tell you something,” I said, throwing caution out the window.  “I’ve done her more good drunk than you ever have sober.”


            The slap knocked me back onto the clean sheets.  “Get up,” he said.  “Get off that bed.”  He’d swatted the light bulb hanging from the ceiling and it swung in a crazy arc, casting dizzy shadows around the room.  I scuttled into the corner of the sofa, and watched him smooth the sheets, snagging them with his rough hands.  Just as he grabbed the bulb to stop it, Mrs. Sunderman started moaning.


            “She needs her shot,” I said, pressing my hand to my eye, swelling already. 


            “My shot,” she whined. He watched me ease the needle into her arm, looking like he was itching to hit me again.  When I was done, he went to the kitchen and tore up the cupboards, looking for my booze.  Then to the closet, ripping her clothes off the hangers to get at the shelves in the back.  I pressed myself flat against the wall.  He turned and came at me then, his arm raised.  But he saw my pocketbook on the table by the door and grabbed it.  He found the fifth inside it, almost empty.  A sleepy neighbor man peered out of a doorway up the hall as he dumped it down the bathroom sink.  Then, he was gone.


            I don’t know why I stayed that night.  It could have been for the sake of any one of us.  I got some ice for my eye, wrapped it in a dishtowel, and waited on the sofa. It was almost morning when he climbed the stairs and though I could smell the bar on him, his footsteps didn’t vary any.  He didn’t seem drunk.  He opened the closet door and set something inside.  The sharp smell of wood stain filled the room as he rubbed it into the gash on the footboard.  Then he stood a long time over her bed. 


            When he was snoring on the floor, Mrs. Sunderman started moaning again.  I stepped across Archie and got the shot ready.  Even with my eye swollen almost shut, I noticed the wisp of green against her pillow.  Next to her bald head, just beside her nose where she could smell it, he’d placed two sprigs of her Lily of the Valley.  I lifted her bony arm and gave her the shot, then crushed the white bells and held them to her nose and my own, the sweet smell of morning he’d brought to the death room. 


            I nearly fell stepping over his sprawled body to check the closet.  He’d stashed three bottles of Old Grand Dad just behind the jamb.


            He woke me in the morning, his hand heavy on my shoulder.  His eyes were blood red and I raised my arms to fend him off.  The apology was already on his face:  he couldn’t stand to look at the shiner he’d given me.


            “I’m leaving,” I said, sitting up and groping for my pocketbook. 


            His shoulders hunched inward, collapsing his chest.  I noticed a bulge and sag at his belt.  “I made you coffee,” he said.  “It’s just a little while longer, Bonnie.”  He was probably right.  She was whimpering already for relief, but I didn’t move.  He backed up against the door and hung his head.  “I won’t ever do it again.  Bonnie, please.” 


            He talked to me quietly while she wept and tossed in the bed, tangled in her sheets.  He told me today was important.  He was coming home early and could I please try to have her awake.  I didn’t answer.


            I stayed though, and that last day, I finally got it right.  I dosed her all day with little shots, and I dosed myself with heavy ones.  I skipped the tea altogether, pouring the glass half full of Old Grand Dad and ice, topping it off with water from the tap.  She chattered in her bed, and I played our repeating game.  “He lost it in the yard,” she said.


            “In the yard,” I answered. 


            Virginia stopped in about eleven and gaped at my eye.  Then she cooed over the new bed, but Lottie didn’t take much notice, said her own acorn bed had been prettier and it was long gone.  She just gazed up at the corner of the ceiling and talked about Henry, his tricycle and a shoe he’d lost.  I kept busy in the kitchen, wiping the counter and straightening the cupboards, drinking till Virginia finally left.


            I went down the hall and ran a tub, shaved my legs with somebody’s rusty razor in the medicine cabinet.  Then I laid back and closed my eyes.  I woke up to her little yodeling scream and walked stark naked down the hall, slipping on the floor and banging my knee. 


            She was pretty bad, but I didn’t want to put her to sleep so soon before Archie was due.  I gave her another little dose.  The shot brought the dreamy look into her eyes and while I was getting dressed, she asked me for a comb.  I gave her mine, and then put on my own dress.  Sitting next to her on the bed, I did my makeup in the mirror.  My bruise was turning darker, so I rubbed in foundation. I drew on the liner and filled in my eyelids with my favorite shade of peach.  I fastened the little buckles on my heels. 


            She was like a child by then, or a young girl, and she asked me for some rouge.  So I let her take a little on her finger and rub it into a sagging cheek.  It wasn’t unusual for them to rally just before they died.  I let her have the lipstick too.  Next to that bright red, her teeth faded to brown when she smiled faintly in the mirror and reached again for my comb.


            We heard footsteps on the stairs, two sets, one trudging ahead and the other an off-beat behind.  They both sounded like Archie’s heavy step and I scooped my makeup into my pocketbook and ran to the kitchen.  I swallowed the last of my drink and rinsed the glass.  As I wiped it, I heard the door open and her gasp from the bed.


            When I saw his shoulders crowding the doorway, the breath left my body.  Fifteen years fell away as I stared into the angry boyish face.  He was taller than Archie, but he looked stocky, his muscles tight under a white T-shirt, darkened under the arms with his clean sweat.  He brought the smell of pine into the sickroom, and I noticed a dusting of sawdust over his jeans.  His fists jammed his pockets.  After taking in the terrible sight of his mother on the bed, he looked away toward the window.  He’d grown up in this house.


            I suppose Archie thought his pathetic inventory was complete. Here in the flesh was his final payment to the wife he’d starved damn near to death.


            “Archie,” she said softly.  She was still facing the vanity and she gazed at the reflection of the boy behind her. I knew all of a sudden why she hadn’t recognized the old man coming and going from her bedside these few weeks.  She’d been waiting for the boy she’d married.


            “Archie, you’re home.”  Her sad, made-up face split into a wide and awful smile.


            “It’s Henry,” said the boy, looking down at his boots.  Archie stood in the hall, a few paces behind him, his eyes still bleeding.


            “Henry?” she whined, her face clouding over.  “What about Henry?”


            “It’s Henry.”  The edge in his strong young voice made me flinch.  He turned toward his father.  “Doesn’t even remember.” 


            Her spidery hands flew up in front of her face.  “No,” she cried.  “No, oh no!  I’m sorry.  Oh Archie, I thought we forgot about the other one!”  She laid back on the bed and tried to hide her face in the pillow.  This was what Virginia had been gossiping  about, Lottie’s past sins, her other baby.  Her nightmare was playing out again on her deathbed. 


            I started to go to her, but Archie shoved his way into the room, past the boy and me, to the edge of her bed.  He almost touched her, but stopped his hand in the air above her terrible hair.  “Lottie, I’m here.  Lottie, look here now, it’s Henry.”  He ran back to the door and grabbed the boy by the shoulders, trying to muscle him over to his mother so she could see them both, side by side.  “He’s sorry for running off.”


            “Mom,” said the boy, his anger fading to confusion.  “It’s me.”  But by then she’d set up a wailing that would wake the dead, and he broke under it.  He tore loose from his father, shoving him against the wall, and bolted.  His boots made an awful echo on the stairs, and the door slammed so hard it seemed to rattle the whole house. 


            Archie stood stock still, trying to take in his failure.  Then he ran too, and I could hear my car starting as I drew another shot to put her to sleep.  But as I lifted her arm, something came to me.  I wasn’t a nurse, and she didn’t need one.  I sat down on the bed.


            “He’s ashamed, Lottie,” I told her.  “Archie’s sick over what he’s done to you.”  I said it twice more, then again, and she listened, still weeping.  I kept talking and stroking her arm.  The rusty fan was pushing cool air into the room.


            “He searched all over for this pretty bed,” I told her.  Her eyes opened then and she focused on those acorns while I talked.  “He tried to make up for it.  He’s so ashamed.”


            “He’s so ashamed,” she whispered.


            “I’m sorry, too,” I said.


            “I’m sorry, too,” came her echo.


            She repeated after me and our voices lulled us both.  Those words worked on her as well as the morphine ever had.  I don’t know how much time passed before the sound of him shifting against the wall startled me awake.  He was sprawled in the doorway, the open bottle of Old Grand Dad next to him.  The room had gone dark.  I stopped then and listened to her voice.  “Sick to death over what he done,” she murmured.  “He’s so ashamed.”


            I left her bedside, squeezed between the acorn bed and the sofa, and looked out through the curtains above the fan.  It moved the fabric of my dress against my belly.  He’d parked my car headed east on Willow, pointing toward the lighted spire of Broadway Methodist where a few alcoholics were probably still gathered and sipping their coffee under the fluorescent lights.  Jacob’s was west.


            When he finished his bottle, he crawled to the closet door and opened another. I looked at his face, ragged and blind, and then at hers, peaceful and quiet.  I went back to the bed and gave her a shot, full strength, and then another.  I was drawing the third when his voice stopped me.


            “Tomorrow, I’ll get Henry back up here,” he said, his voice heavy and thick.


            I prepped her other arm, where the vein looked better.


            “I said I’ll get Henry back up here, Bonnie.”  He struggled to his knees, knocking over the empty bottle and sending it rolling across the room.  “You’re a damn nurse.” 


            But she didn’t need a nurse.  He sat back against the wall, let out a rattling sob, and took a long pull.  When all the vials were empty, I stuffed them into a paper bag.  My watch had stopped, but I estimated her pulse was well under thirty. 


            Downstairs I plucked two strings of her Lily of the Valley and sniffed at the fresh white bells.  She was still breathing when I left and to my way of thinking, she’d outlasted us both.



Tamara Pavich, born and raised in Iowa, is a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, where she has won the Clark Award with Distinction, first prize in the Saiki Short Fiction Contest, and, most recently, the Ian Macmillan Fiction Award. She is at work on a collection of stories and a novel in stories, of which  “Fourth Step” is a chapter. Natural Bridge and Hawaii Review have also published her stories.