Here and After, 2011 First Place Adult Division (tie)
By Jean Nutile
In the spring of 1970, when I was 14, I came home from school one afternoon to discover my parents already home from work and a battered suitcase sitting in the hall.
“What . . . ?” I began but before I could finish Mother nudged me onto the back deck. Our house perched on Squaw Butte north of Emmett. Steel poles drilled into volcanic rock allowed the deck to jut away from the house, providing a great view of the Payette River valley below. My dad had a beer propped on the deck rail and was talking to someone sitting near him in a lawn chair. Our old cow dog Shady lay contentedly between them.
“Melissa, say hello to your mom’s Uncle Warren,” Dad said. Warren struggled out of the chair and extended his hand.
“How, do there, Missy,” he said, offering a toothy smile.
I had heard of Warren but never met him. He had fought in France during the First World War and mined tungsten in Stibnite during the second, worked as a lumberjack, and a rodeo clown, and a seasonal employee for the Forest Service.
He was tall despite stooped shoulders. A clear plastic tube that hooked around his ears ran under his nose and down to a bulky green tank at his feet. Wrinkles mapped a weathered face topped with an unruly shock of white hair. The hand I shook was rough and a knotty scar curled like a snake down one forearm. This guy is older than dirt, I thought, but then I looked into his eyes. They were a lively green and stared at me with such intensity that I lowered my head and gazed at the place where the raggedy cuffs of my bell bottoms met my sandals.
For once I was glad when Mother asked me to help with dinner.
“What’s going on?” I asked when we were in the kitchen.
“Well, Warren was living at the Veterans’ Home in Boise but checked himself out. Bad idea considering his medical problems. For one thing, he has emphysema,”
I gave her my best blank stare.
“That’s when your lungs are so damaged it’s hard to breathe,” Mother explained. “You noticed the oxygen?”
“Ok, but why is he here?” I persisted.
“He wanted to drive to Verna’s in that rickety pickup of his; why I don’t know because they never really got along and anyway he shouldn’t be driving. Because I’m a nurse, we decided it was better he come here. You know, Warren is quite a character. He could give you some writing ideas for English class.”
But I had stopped listening as soon as I heard the name Verna.”
“Don’t tell me she’s coming here too!” I screeched, nearly cutting myself with the knife I was using to slice radishes
Verna was Warren’s younger widowed sister who lived in Montana. I had met her only once but never forgot how awkward and inadequate she had made me feel. She reminded me of the Puritans we had studied in history class, who believed people were predestined for either heaven or hell. The way she had looked at me left no doubt where she thought I was headed.
“No, Verna’s not coming. Quiet down and set the table.”
Dinner consisted of grilled chicken, salad, and Idaho bakers. Warren nodded in satisfaction as he ate. “Good eats,” he said. As his fork moved steadily between his plate and mouth, he caught me staring at the scar. “Brahma bulls are pretty ornery critters. Fast too,” he explained, which set him and Dad talking about Warren’s time on the rodeo circuit.
“Mind if we go back outside?” Warren said after he had scraped his plate clean. “Don’t want to waste this beautiful evening.”
So we ate our huckleberry cobbler on the deck and watched the sun go down.
“Great cobbler, Molly,” Warren said to my mother. “Reminds me of when I was a kid, huckleberry picking up around Sandpoint. All of a sudden the bushes where I’m pickin’ start rustling; then I hear this snort. I peer through the twigs and there on the other side is this big ol’ black bear. I dropped my bucket and away I ran. Bucket was pretty near full too. That bear had a real feast that day.” He spoke in short bursts of words with struggling breaths in between.
Twilight had descended now. Suddenly, a stubby dark shape swooped above our heads.
“Owl,” Warren commented, still a bit winded. “Missy, you interested in owls?’
I was not interested in wildlife of any sort, but I muttered “I guess” just to be polite.
Just then a rapid series of flute-like hoots floated up from the cottonwoods down the hill. “Yep, Screech Owl,” Warren nodded, yawning. Despite his protests that he could sleep “any old where,” my parents gave him my bedroom.
“It won’t be for long,” my mother whispered to me, but I was horrified. I had always been an introverted kid; my room was the one place where I could brood and dream, read and listen to records in blissful solitude. Now an old coot wheeling an oxygen tank behind him had commandeered my refuge and I would be relegated to the sofa sleeper in the den.
As “not long” turned into weeks, my resentment grew. My habit when I got home from school was to flop down on my bed and listen to music; now I could not do that anymore, so sometimes I hung out after school with friends who lived in town, deliberately missing the bus so I would not have to be alone with Warren and listen to him yammer. Later I would walk to the doctor’s office where Mother worked and ride home with her, or even out to the sawmill to ride home with Dad.
“Tough times, huh, Missy?” Dad asked me once when he found me waiting in the pickup.
“He’s been here more than a month,” I whined.
“I know it’s tough, kiddo, but when life gives you lemons . . .”
“Make lemonade,” I finished sarcastically.
“Mom and I expect you to be patient. And kind. You know, he has some great stories. He ever tell you about the time he was packing supplies into a fire lookout and turned around to find a big old cow moose trailing along behind the mules?”
“Several times,” I sighed.
That summer I got my drivers’ license, but my parents wouldn’t let me drive into town alone, so I practiced driving our old GMC pickup on the back roads. One day in August I was leaving for one of these excursions when Mother said, “I want you to drive Uncle Warren down to the river. It’ll be good for him to get out.”
I slouched out to the deck where Warren sat with Shady at his feet.”
“You pretty much run the show here, huh, pooch?” he said, scratching Shady behind the ears.
“No, Warren, you do,” I wanted to say but instead asked if he would like to drive down to the river.
He said he would be delighted.
With an effort, Warren loaded himself and his oxygen into the truck’s passenger seat. When I turned the key, The Rolling Stones blasted out of the radio. “Sorry,” I said and turned it off.
It had been oppressively hot, but black sky to the west promised a storm. I pulled off downstream from the dam and we walked to the river’s edge, Warren’s oxygen tank bumping along behind him. Suddenly, he put an arm on my shoulder for balance, wriggled out of his shoes, and waded in.
“Sure can’t do this at the VA,” he said, wiggling his toes in contentment. “Join me?”
When I shook my head he looked disappointed, but then his voice brightened with excitement. “Missy, look there!”
A big brown and white bird glided not far above our heads.
“An Osprey!” Warren smiled. “I love those big, goofy-winged birds.”
What is with this old goat and birds, I wondered, as we watched the Osprey flap off downriver. Soon thunder began to rumble and a dusty breeze kicked up. By the time we got back into the truck rain was spitting, but I did not know how to turn on the wipers. “Right there,” Warren pointed, just as the rain began to pour.
On the way home we passed a pasture of horses hunched miserably against the rain. “I’m glad I’m not a horse right now,” I muttered.
“Me too or you’d hardly fit in here,” Warren replied deadpan, looking around the cab. I started to laugh, which caught us both by surprise. I laughed until tears ran and I was afraid I’d wreck the truck. Warren began to chuckle too; he seemed pleased.
A typical Idaho summer storm, it ended quickly. Warren cranked down his window and stuck his head out. “Nothing like the smell of sagebrush after a rain!” he declared and took as deep a breath as he could manage.
After that day at the river I spent more time with Warren, listening to him reminisce. Some of his stories concerned near disasters and I was amazed that he was still here, that he hadn’t been blown up in the war or crushed by a tree while logging or buried in a mine disaster. When school started up again, I would sit with him on the deck doing my homework and he would respect my need for silence. One day, I looked up from the tortures of geometry to find a fuzzy black caterpillar perched on his finger.
“This little guy seems to think we’ll have a bad winter. I never minded the snow myself,” he said and he sounded uncharacteristically wistful and sad. He gently put the caterpillar down on one of Mother’s potted geraniums.
As September waned, Warren suddenly grew worse. His breathing was wet and labored and talking used up precious air. His room (I had stopped thinking of it as mine) was now a hospital room, complete with an adjustable bed, an IV pole and other mysterious medical devices. Mother took time off to care for him and the doctor she worked for checked in everyday. I sat with him after school and held his hand.
Verna drove down from Montana and checked herself into our only motel. When she arrived at our house late on a Friday afternoon, Mother was tending to Warren, Dad was still at work, and I was on the deck with Shady. I had given up on my geometry assignment and was scanning the sky for soaring hawks, a habit I had picked up from Warren. Shady nuzzled my knee for attention and I leaned down to kiss him on the head just as Verna opened the sliding glass door.
“Melissa, really! Kissing an animal!” were her first words to me and she grimaced as “Bad Moon Rising” boomed from my portable radio. “Well, I’ll just wait here while your mother makes Warren presentable. I certainly hope he has made his peace with the Lord. We so often squander our time here on earthly pleasures instead of preparing for eternity,” she said, plopping herself down in the chair facing mine.
The woman made me self-conscious to the point of mute agony. She frowned at my peasant shirt and the peace symbol I had absent-mindedly doodled on my arm until I felt like a bug wriggling on a pin. I felt the “me” that she was seeing wasn’t the real me at all.
“So, dear,” she said patronizingly, “what grade are you in now?”
Just then, to my relief, Mother appeared. We went to fix dinner and Verna went in to see Warren. Dinner was uncomfortable what with all the talk about “last arrangements.” Warren, of course, was not well enough to come to the table but he had earlier commented that when his time came he would like to rest in our little cemetery on the bluff just north of town.
His time came quickly. Later that night Warren began to cough and gasp as if he were drowning. We all gathered around his bed. Mother cried and Verna muttered something about the grace of God and going to a better place. Then Warren whispered my name. Someone gently pushed me forward and I went. His shaking hand beckoned me nearer and I realized he wanted to say something, so I leaned my ear as close as I could. It was an effort for him to say the words, but I heard them. I squeezed his hand and kissed him, then rushed sobbing from the room and out the back door. I ran up the hill through the sagebrush, startling two Burrowing Owls standing atop a mound of dirt. Realizing I knew what they were called only because of Warren made me cry harder.
It was a graveside service. The top of the butte was already dusted with snow, but the sky was a cobalt blue and bright sun dispelled the chill The minister said a few words, a couple of veterans from the VA gave Verna a folded flag, and then one of them played taps.
As we drifted away from the grave Verna sidled up next to me. “Now, Melissa,” she said in a wheedling tone, “What did Warren say to you just before he passed?”
I blinked back tears and gazed out over the valley. A braid of smoke curled up from the mill, spicing the air with the smell of fresh-cut pine. The river twisted along, reflecting the soft golden glow of turning leaves and I could just make out the place where Warren had waded in.
Well?” Verna demanded.
I took a deep breath, looked her right in the eye and told her. “Warren said, ‘To hell with a better place! I like it here.’ ”