Bob and his buddies played on until it got almost dark, and he still had six miles to walk home. He had been given leave from his chores to go to town to play baseball, mainly because Mama needed some rest. That’s what his grandma told him anyway. He was always so annoying and restless, and now that he was almost twelve, Grandma needed him to learn how to do the chores of a man. She had to show him everything, since his father was either out delivering milk or down on a bar stool at Pete’s. All that farm work needing done, and inside Bob’s mother was sleeping in her bed. Grandma had to show Bob how to mend the fence, her gnarled hands twisting the pliars while he clumsily held the wire. He shoveled out the barn every morning, taking twice as long as a grown man would take to do it. He was always in her hair, asking, “How do I do this?” or “I can’t find it.” So this morning, she had told him in an exasperated voice, “Go play somewhere.”
Bob ran to town, stopping first at Greg’s house, then on to Jim’s and soon the ballgame was underway. Playing ball with his buddies was much better than watching Mama slowly fade, the cancer in her breast draining her eyes little by little each day. By dark, his father would be home and probably drunk, too. His grandmother would need help changing his Mama’s bed sheets. Grandma had a notion that if she kept fresh sheets on the bed each day, Rose would get better. She didn’t understand that someone could be so sick from the inside, unseen spots of spreading death. All her other children had gotten sick from foul air, or drinking bad water, or walking around in the snow with not enough clothes. To cure them, she had to freshen the air, dust harder, boil the water longer, sew more clothes. By working hard toward a remedy, in time, the illness went away. But no matter how often she boiled the sheets or scrubbed the floors with coal oil soap, this daughter would not get better. And who was going to take care of this boy? Certainly not his good-for-nothing father.
When Bob walked in the house, his father was sitting bent over the kitchen table with his head in his hands, and Grandma was just coming in from the backyard with her arms full of damp sheets from the clothesline. Nothing could dry fast in that humid Kentucky air, so every night Grandma ironed the damp sheets until they were dry, then she would go change the bed and take the changed sheets onto the back porch for soaking in soapy water, waiting for the pre-dawn boiling. Eying the boy who was covered with dirt, grass stains and sweat from running home, she growled, “Robert, get those filthy clothes off and put them on the porch. You fix yourself something to eat, and leave me alone.” She licked her finger and gingerly tapped the hot metal iron, satisfied with the sizzle.
“Where you been boy?” his father managed to ask before he directed his attention to his glass. Bob knew Pop wasn’t really listening when he answered, “playing ball in town.” Bob knew how to cook for himself and clean house. He fried up some eggs and salt ham slices he found in the pantry and sat across from his father, inhaling his dinner.
His grandmother sweated over the iron. It was so hot in the kitchen. In August, when the sun went down the air outside enclosed your skin like a sticky cocoon; it felt like breathing mud. Grandma pushed the iron unnecessarily hard across the white cloth. She only took her eyes off her task when her son-in-law raised himself up out of his chair and walked into the front room to get more bourbon. He always seemed to have enough money for whiskey or gambling, but not enough to pay the doctor when he came. The doctor never did any good, anyway.
Grandma got the sheets dry and went to the door of the bedroom. Standing silently, listening, she gently tapped the wooden door and opened it a crack to peek in. Too weak to answer, Rose lay white and still, her lips parched in her sweaty face, sunken eyes looking out the dark window. Maybe she was looking at the stars, maybe at her memories, maybe at nothing. She raised her head as her mom came toward the bed. If only her eyes would loose that pall and smile again! Grandma tenderly placed her hand on Rose’s head, guiding her to rest again. “Shh, Shatzie, I’ll get you some water.” Still clutching the warm sheets, she went to the water jug and poured a teacup full. A sip was all, too much could make her vomit. She brought the cup over to Rose and sat on the edge of the bed. Holding Rose’s head up, she tipped the water into her dry mouth. Rose struggled in her throat to swallow and closed her eyes, breathing hard from the effort.
“I’ve got your sheets, Baby. You feeling strong enough to get up? You wanna sit by the window a few minutes?” This nightly ritual was lately the only time all day Rose got out of bed. Tonight, she put her hand on her mother’s raw, red fingers and whispered, “No.” She looked at her mother clearly, her eyes momentarily as direct as they had been when she was a bright, growing child. “No” she said again, and this time, instead of fighting her, cajoling her out of bed to walk to the chair, Grandma just looked at her. For a brief moment there was Rose again, standing up to her mother, proud and grown, deciding exactly where her life was headed. This was Rose’s expression the day she told her mother she was going to marry Phillip, “No matter what”. That good-for-nothing bum? And look how he turned out! Why wouldn’t Elaine ever listen? So much pain might have been prevented. Maybe this sorrow that was eating her daughter’s spirit alive, even before any gray hairs had grown on her head, would have never happened, if only the girl had listened. But those were not the eyes of someone inclined to hear another’s wisdom. And now Rose was not going to get out of bed. Grandma didn’t argue. Her heart rose in her throat, and Rose closed her eyes and sunk back into the pillow.
“OK, then, tomorrow’s another day.” Grandma stood up and loudly shook out the sheets and placed them folded on the empty chair.
Bob wiped out the cast iron skillet and headed for his climbing tree in the front of the house. Even in the dark he could make his way up, his bare feet feeling the big knot that stuck out and let him get his balance. He grabbed the lower limb and pulled himself up to sit on it. In the cool, smooth arm of the tree he could lean against the trunk and see out over the fields for miles. Looking in the direction of the road he had run home on, he saw the lights of Okalona. . He sat still as night, gazing at those lights as he had done hundreds of times. Porch lamps dotted the dark, thin toward the edges where the farms were and thickening in the center. The brightest lights in town shone from the Southern High School football field. Tonight the lights were on, getting tested for the new season. On Friday nights every fall the stadium lights lit the whole center of town, and the roar of the crowd made it all the way to Bob’s tree. He thrilled to hear it. He saw himself down there, running the ball across the field, dodging and weaving the opposition, jaw set, no fear allowed. Only victory. Running the ball to the end zone and slamming it down in triumph, his buddies piled on top of him, shouting, “We won, you did it!” The crowd roared for him. He was hoisted up onto his teammates’ shoulders, a mass of elation moving across the field. Back in the locker room, the boys smacked their towels in the air next to his ear in appreciation for making it, for risking everything and coming through, and he glowed with pride. He saw himself changing out of his sweaty uniform and into his jeans, breathing hard to make it to the bleachers on time. His girl would be waiting, leaning back against the fence with her foot propped up and her knee moving from side to side as she watched him walk toward her from the locker room. The scent of triumph would surround them as he took her hand and they walked out the gate, across the street to the soda shop.
Monday morning Bob would go to school there, leaving behind his one-room schoolhouse. He would finally get to walk down the hill, walk into the stone gymnasium and sign up for tryouts. There would be hard competition; all his buddies would be practicing hard to prove themselves to the coach. Bob was ready to work. There could be no victory without hard work. He wanted to work hard with his teammates and win more than anything.
“Bob? Bob Hill, git in here now!” His Grandma’s voice sounded higher than normal, as if something was wrong. Bob’s foot was asleep, but he shimmied down the tree and ran into the house. His dad sat smoking in the dark front room; Bob ran past to his mother’s bedroom where Grandma was standing.
“Your momma wants to see you. Slow down, boy, don’t be so wild.” She ran her hands over his head and down his arms, as if wiping away germs, and she gave him a whack on his rear for good measure. He doubted his mom had asked for him because she looked asleep and very white. He walked slowly, placing his toes down first on the creaking wooden floor, and made his way to her side.
Rose dragged her eyes open and found her son. This was the one who wasn’t yet grown. All the others were already finding their own way, but Bob stood there like a half-done loaf of bread pulled from the oven too soon. She opened her hand and he placed his in hers. He was surprised to feel her grip firm and she now looked at him straight on. Confused, he asked her “You want some water, Mama?”
“You be a good boy, Bob. Take care of your grandma. And don’t be mad at your father. He can’t help it.” Her blue eyes watched him closely, and he felt it was very important to understand what she was saying, even though he really didn’t. His head got hot, and he blinked tears that dropped onto his mother’s hand.
“Promise me, boy. Say you promise.”
“Yes, Mama, I promise.”
Elaine gave his hand a gentle squeeze and smiled all the love she had left into this trembling boy. Bob fought back tears and stood as still as he could. He did not want to cry like a baby. He wanted to stand tall and firm like a man. His mother squeezed his hand again and closed her eyes. Rose let go of his hand, and he stood stock still, watching her breathe. After what seemed like a long time he noticed his Grandma watching her too. Rose looked peaceful and soft.
“Come on boy, let’s let her sleep.” She put her hand on his shoulder and guided him out of the room. “You go to bed now. There’s work to do in the morning.” Her voice sounded less irritated than usual. He walked past the dark front room where his father was now passed out sitting up in his chair. Bob climbed the stairs to his tiny bedroom and stared at the magazine clippings of baseball and football players glued to his walls. The next thing he knew the sun was up, and his mother was dead.