Tohbi Springs, Tennessee
Saturday, November 16, 2019
“I’m going to have to take the battery out to get to it,” I informed Hank as I let out an exhausted sigh. The late November wind nipped at my fingers as I maneuvered the wrench around the bolts that held the battery in place. Ever since Bobby had decided to fall back into the bottle, I had inherited his workload. My day had started at 7:00 with a transmission rebuild on a pesky Mini Cooper, and now that it was almost 4:00 p.m., I was finally taking a look at our most prized possession: a 1997 Jeep Cherokee. Sure, her red paint was faded, and she was by no means the fastest, most stylish, or even the most reliable. But she was paid for.
Hank fiddled with his long, light-brown hair. “Think you’ll have her running by tonight?”
“You still planning on going on that date?” I didn’t look my brother in the eyes.
“I promised Jayla I’d take her to her cousin’s birthday party.” He rocked from side to side. “I’ve already bailed on two dates because of Dad. Think I kind of have to at this point.”
I let out a grunt before hoisting the battery. It wasn’t that I minded working on the Jeep for Hank. Heck, ever since our ex-mother decided to bail five years earlier, my life revolved around taking care of my six siblings. It wasn’t that Hank didn’t help, because he did. It wasn’t even that I minded him having some time to himself to have a life. At least, one of us should. What I minded was who he was planning to go see.
“Come on, what do you have against Jayla?”
What don’t I have against Jayla? I thought as I took the old alternator out.
I couldn’t fault Hank for finding Jayla Washington attractive. As the fastest, most dedicated runner on the track team, she was fit, shapely, and blessed with flawless ebony skin to go with it. Even if I wanted to accuse Jayla of being just a pretty face, I wouldn’t get anyone to agree with me. The girl had a 4.0, and even without the track scholarship she was sure to get, she was going places. The problem, though, was that Jayla didn’t see the exceptional person she already was and looked to guys for the affirmation she was desperately searching for. When she attached herself to a guy, she didn’t let go until she had gotten everything she wanted from the relationship. Then she discarded them. In short, she was a man-eater. Hank had only just turned seventeen and was already in deep.
“Have your fun,” I answered finally. “Just remember two things.” I counted on my fingers. “Jayla seems pretty desperate to hold on to you. We don’t need any more mouths around here to feed.”
“Madi, I might not have your brains, but I’m smart enough to take precautions,” Hank retorted as he leaned down to watch what I was doing.
“Good to know.” I stepped back to pick up the new alternator that had drained us of grocery money for the week. “Just trying to look out for you—that’s all.”
I had barely gotten the words out of my mouth when the low rumble of an engine caught our attention. I turned my head to see a white and blue Tohbi Springs Police Department patroller turning down our drive. I put down the alternator and quickly began cleaning off my hands.
“Austin or Bobby?” I muttered without looking at Hank
“Damn, what now?” Hank growled as he walked toward the car.
The patrol car came to a stop on our gravel driveway a few feet away and Sergeant Nate Grayson stepped out to greet us with his usual “aw-shucks” demeanor. At thirty-seven, Nate still had boyish good looks and a trim figure.
“Bobby’s had too many again,” Nate greeted us as he opened the back drivers-side door where Bobby slumped nearly passed out.
“Didn’t even realize he was gone.” Hank reached to help Nate steady Bobby as he pulled him out of the car. “I’ve got him.”
“Sorry, Madi,” Bobby slurred as Hank helped him past me.
“Sleep it off,” I said with less sympathy than I intended.
Hank walked Bobby through the worn path in the dead grass we called a yard, and steadied him up the steps of the decaying camper which sat in the back corner of the property. I watched wondering how I’d missed Bobby slipping out. It must have been around the time I fixed the kids’ lunches, and so Bobby had probably been drinking for the past four hours.
Luckily, Nate had served with Bobby during his first tour. While Nate managed to come home mostly intact and ready to move on with his life, Bobby found himself trapped in a hell I would never understand. The only thing that got Bobby over his first tour was returning for a second and then a third. Unfortunately, each tour took a little more of the good, solid man that Bobby had been. We had watched as my father picked up Bobby’s remaining pieces over and over again until Dad got his cancer diagnosis. Now Bobby had become nothing but a drunk shell of a man.
“Sorry, Nate.” My tone softened as I continued to work on cleaning my hands. “I’ve been busy. Didn’t even realize he had slipped out.”
“Stop. It’s not your fault,” Nate offered. “Bobby needs help—more help than you or I can give him.”
“Dad will talk to him again. Don’t know what good it’ll do, though.” I sighed as I tossed the towel I had been using to clean my hands into the toolbox.
“Speaking of your dad, is he feeling up for a visit?” Nate leaned against his patrol car in a manner that told me he wasn’t planning on leaving anytime soon.
“Sorry, no,” I replied as Hank rejoined us by the Jeep. “He’s been in bed all day and doesn’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon.”
“What’s up?” Hank reached to shake Nate’s hand.
“Hank Rigby, is it just me or do you grow taller every time I see you?” Nate grinned as he accepted Hank’s hand to shake. “What are you up to now?”
“Six three…and a half.” Hank grinned back sheepishly, trying not to appear immodest.
“I know Coach T has to be pumped about having you back next year. You’ve been killing it out there this year—and they had you playing both sides of the ball!”
Hank’s dimples were in full display as he couldn’t help but smile as he talked about his favorite thing in life. “Being a wide receiver is everything to me, but I have to admit I’ve had a lot of fun playing cornerback too this season. Hopefully, it’s getting the attention of the scouts.”
“Now it’s almost time to get ready for my favorite season—baseball.” The topic of sports momentarily sidetracked Nate, causing him to forget why he was there. “I think you guys have got a shot at state this year.”
“Oh man, I sure hope so. We’ve got our best pitcher coming back,” Hank replied.
“Not to interrupt a good sports conversation when it’s just getting started, but is there something you wanted me to tell Dad?” I jumped in, eager to get back to working on the Jeep before the last glimmer of sunlight faded.
“Yeah…well…I was really hoping to talk to him about a few things. Think he might be up for company tomorrow?” Nate scratched his head.
“Hard to say,” I answered. “He has good days and bad days. Today’s been a bad one.”
Nate shifted his weight from one leg to the other. “You, uh…haven’t heard from your mom, have you?”
I felt my face turn red, like it did every time someone mentioned my ex-mother, Lisa. It was no secret that I resented her for the things she had done to us over the years. And after she left us, I had made it a general rule not to talk about her.
“Should we have?” I asked, wondering if Nate had some news on her whereabouts. Perhaps she had succumbed to an awful, painful disease and died.
“No, I suppose not,” Nate replied. “I just knew with your dad being sick and all—”
“That’s why we’ve got Bobby,” Hank interrupted, knowing that I didn’t like where the conversation was going.
“Nate, did Dad ask you to look for Lisa or something?” I asked as I walked over and began putting the old alternator into the box the new one had come out of.
Nate followed. “Look, Madi, I’m not suggesting your mom is the right person to take care of you guys. But Bobby’s hurting more than he’s helping at this point.”
“I wouldn’t say that.” I wanted to defend Bobby, but he had given me little to work with lately.
“Look at what you two are out here doing right now—Bobby’s job. You think once your dad passes, Bobby’s just going to get it all together and step up?”
“Maybe if Garth hadn’t gotten arrested, we wouldn’t need Bobby,” I snapped before thinking better of it. Even though Nate had been one of the arresting officers, I knew my oldest brother was the only one to blame for his mistakes. Between his bipolar diagnosis and being athletically outshined by his little brother, Garth had had it rough. This didn’t excuse his behavior, however.
“We don’t need Garth or Lisa,” Hank said as he crossed his arms over his brawny chest.
“Whoa, guys, I come in peace.” Nate smiled as he put both hands up in the air. “I’m really just here to talk about Bobby and getting him some help.”
“I’ll do a better job of keeping an eye on him. I just got sidetracked with the Jeep.” I continued making excuses, hoping to get Nate off the subject of Bobby and the prospect of Dad dying.
“What are you now? Fifteen?” Nate questioned.
“I’ll be sixteen in four months,” I said as if this qualified me to be an adult.
Nate put his hands in his pockets as the wind picked up. “My point is that it can’t be your job to fix Bobby. I think it’s time I do something. I’m just not sure what.”
“Maybe we should call his niece?” Hank suggested. “Madi, you were pretty close to Gabby when she was around. Do you have any way of contacting her?”
“That’s not a bad idea. Maybe she could help us get him to agree to rehab,” Nate said.
“I haven’t talked to Gabby since she left in July,” I replied. “She’s pretty busy with work and school. I don’t think we should bother her.”
“It’s almost Thanksgiving; she’s probably going to call him soon. Wouldn’t hurt to give her a heads-up to what’s going on,” Nate countered.
“I’ll give it some thought,” I said, already knowing that I wasn’t going to bother Gabby with Bobby’s problems.
I found Dad propped up in bed wearing freshly washed flannels when I brought him his dinner. A brass antique piano lamp that sat on a nightstand beside the bed lit the gloomy room with its faded white-colored walls. It was grilled catfish night at the Rigby house, but since getting sick, fish had been one of the things my father couldn’t stomach. Just the smell made him nauseous. Unfortunately, fish was one of the few meats we could access freely, so I was forced to continue cooking it. On those nights, Dad stayed in his room to avoid the smell, and I would bring him something light whenever I finished in the kitchen.
“Did I see Nate outside earlier, or was I dreaming?” Dad asked as he took off his reading glasses and sat aside the paper he had been perusing.
“Nate brought Bobby home again,” I sighed as I held out a bowl of chicken noodle soup.
“What’s that now? The third time this month?” Dad frowned as he took the soup.
“Today makes four,” I answered as I looked Dad over.
For the fifteen years that I had known him, Dale Rigby had been a handsome man with a gentle spirit. So handsome, in fact, that he had been able to win over a woman twenty-five years his junior. Up until he had gotten sick, Dad had maintained a healthy workout regimen of yard work, jogging, and the occasional weights. At seventy, he looked his age but wore it well. Even under the thick beard that he had always worn in my presence, I could see his Kevin Costner-like features and understood why women half his age were so flirty with him. But now in the dim light of his bedroom, Dad looked anything but handsome. Months of cancer feasting on his body had left him considerably thinner than he had ever been. The two rounds of chemo he had been able to stomach took his hair, and even though he had discontinued all treatments, his hair had failed to grow back properly. Instead, he now sported patches of wiry white hair that he had no energy to care for. His skin looked fragile and unhealthy, and the expression Dad now wore on his face was much more hardened than his typical mellow demeanor.
“Can I get you anything else?” I asked as I shifted my gaze to the overflowing laundry basket on the other side of the room.
Dad motioned for me to take a seat on the bed. “You can sit with me awhile.”
My mind raced with all the things I still needed to do as I continued to stare at the laundry basket. Yet I knew that out of everything I had to do, sitting with my father was probably the most important. As much as it pained us to think of losing him, we had all been honest about his prognosis. Dad had stage-four pancreatic cancer that had metastasized to his liver and bones. Doctors could only offer to “keep him comfortable.” Death was inevitable, and before long, he would not be around to talk to.
“I can spare a few minutes I guess,” I replied.
“Good. Where is everyone else?”
“I told Austin to clean his room, but I’m fairly sure he’s just in there goofing off. The twins are playing in their room, and if I had to guess, I’d say Dallas is perched in his usual spot on the couch.”
“Out on a date.”
“Ah, good for him. What’s that girl’s name again?”
Dad picked up on my dislike of Jayla by the way I said her name. “Not a fan, huh?”
“I don’t trust her.”
“Well, do you trust Hank?”
“Would you trust the judgment of a hormonal seventeen-year-old boy?”
“When you put it that way…” Dad let his thoughts drift off, and we sat in silence for a number of seconds.
I broke the silence first. “I should let you rest.”
“That’s all I’ve done today. No, we need to discuss some things.”
“Sure, Pops. What’s on your mind?”
Dad closed his eyes as he rubbed his forehead, something he used to only do when he had bad news. Since the cancer, however, I constantly saw him rubbing his head. I tried to guess whether Dad had bad news or was just in pain as I waited for him to continue.
“I guess I should have done something about Bobby before now,” Dad began. “You understand why I give him so many chances, don’t you?
I sighed a little at the thought of just how many chances we had both given Bobby. “I assume it has to do with your friendship with his father.”
“Darn right,” Dad nodded. “When you fight in a war with someone like I fought with his dad, well, you form a bond. You experience things.”
“You’ve never liked talking about Vietnam.”
“No, I haven’t.” Dad stopped to clear his throat. This caused him to break out in a fit of coughing.
“Need some water?” I asked as I reached for his glass, trying to anticipate his needs.
“No, I’m good,” Dad replied as he got control of the coughing. “I just need to know you can keep what I tell you between the two of us. I’ll share this with Hank and the others later, but for now this is just between you and me.”
Dad had a habit of trusting me with information he didn’t feel comfortable sharing with the others. Before going to prison, Garth had been easily depressed by bad or troubling news, and as tough as Hank was, he had a way of overreacting when it came to family. Even though things tended to bother me more than I let on, I was typically the calmest. It was like a badge of honor, being the one Dad went to for support, so I always kept whatever he confided to me close to the vest.
“Don’t I always?” I asked, ready to finally hear about Vietnam.
Dad took one last bite of the soup before setting it down. “Close the blinds, will you?”
I did as he asked, and when I turned around Dad looked as if he were in a daze.
“I never told you about my other war buddy from Kansas City, Jeff Morgan.” Dad didn’t move his eyes but continued to stare straight ahead. “All those Crazy Hearts’ songs I used to play for you…those were written by Jeff.”
“That’s cool, I guess,” I said puzzledly as I returned to the side of the bed. Concerned by the staring, I felt Dad’s forehead. The sensation of my hand touching his forehead caused him to jerk. “Sorry.”
“Take a seat, sweetheart.” Dad motioned to the old tan recliner that sat across from the bed. “I want you to know the man who wrote those songs. One day soon, you’ll hear all the bad stuff about Jeff, but before then, I want you to know my version of Jeff.”
I took a seat and listened as my father began rattling on and on about this man named Jeff and his musical abilities. As Dad listed off all the instruments that Jeff played, I fought the urge to deal with the laundry basket that was still staring at me.
“But all of Jeff’s musical dreams got put on hold when his number got called. October 18, 1950. Not a day to be born on if you didn’t want to go to war.”
“Neither was April 24,” I said, referring to Dad’s birthday, which had also been chosen in the Vietnam draft lottery.
Dad laughed, and for the next few minutes, Dad retold the birthday party story I had heard a thousand times before. It had nothing to do with Jeff and every bit to do with Garth setting my bangs on fire, which was, thankfully, the end of me and bangs. Maybe it was a symptom of the cancer, but Dad struggled to stay on point as he thought about all of our different birthday parties over the years. Finally, he remembered why he was telling the story, and he jumped ahead.
“There’s a lot I could tell you about Jeff and how he turned his love for music into a career as a DJ in Kansas City,” Dad said. “But our time is limited, and there’s so much to share.”
I leaned forward in the recliner as I picked at my cuticles. “You’re looking tired. Should I let you rest?”
“No!” Dad barked. “You have to understand about Jeff.”
“OK, I’m listening.”
“Jeff had three daughters and a wife that he loved very much. I’m not sure how he ever got so lucky—having such an amazing family—but his family loved him as much as he loved them. In fact, Jeff was their idol. They idolized him, and he loved being their hero.”
A tear formed in Dad’s eye, and he stopped to chase it away as it ran down his check.
“Dad, are you OK?” my stomach did flips as I watched Dad get emotional.
Dad cleared his throat again as if he was pushing back a lump. “Sorry, darling. I guess the cancer has me feeling sentimental today.” Dad held up his hand for me to wait while he took a sip of water. Then he continued.
“Jeff loved to take his girls out on the water, so much so that he convinced his wife to let him buy a boat. All three of his daughters—Ava, Holly, and Hope—were all big fans of the boat. But it was Hope who especially lived for time out on the lake.”
“Is this about that song Love on the Lake?” I offered, trying to understand where my father was headed.
“Love on the lake…not everyone can take…a break for the day…,” Dad began to sing.
“I didn’t mean to sidetrack you.” I got up and went over to the laundry basket and began to sort the dirty clothes according to color. “You were saying?
“What was I saying?”
“Jeff had three daughters that liked to go boating. Hope really liked it.”
“Right.” Dad’s face lit up. “Hope was really getting good at it, too. She could pilot that boat better than she could drive a car. Course, she was only fourteen. That’s when she went through a rough time.”
“Like Garth?” I asked, referring to his knack for always being at the wrong place at the wrong time.
“More like the time I grounded Hank for sneaking out to see his girlfriend in the middle of the night,” Dad clarified, referring to an incident that had happened when Hank had only been fourteen.
“Gotcha.” I finished separating the clothes and looked around the room for something else to do.
“Her mother wasn’t going to let her go to the lake that particular weekend, but Jeff was a softy. Too soft.”
A knock at the door interrupted us, and for a second, Dad looked like he was going to vomit. “Who is it?” Dad called out.
“It’s Lucy. Is Madi in there?” my seven-year-old sister yelled back.
“Are you alone, or is your twin with you?” I asked as I walked across the room to the door.
“It’s just me.” Lucy replied.
“What seems to be the problem?” I asked as I opened the door.
“It’s our bedtime, and we haven’t brushed our teeth,” Lucy confessed.
I smiled. “Well, that’s an easy fix. Go brush them.”
“But aren’t you going to help us get ready for bed?” Lucy, the anxious one in the family, was always concerned about following our usual routine.
“Tell you what. You go tell the boys it’s time to get ready for bed, and then when you’re done, you can color in your bedroom until I get there,” I suggested.
“You mean we get to stay up late tonight?” Lucy looked more confused than excited.
“Come here, Pumpkin,” Dad called out. “I haven’t seen much of you this weekend.”
Lucy glanced at me and back at Dad. “Madi said your stomach was hurting, so we should leave you alone.”
“Ah, so that’s who’s been keeping my girl from me.” Dad motioned for Lucy to join him on the bed. “Come give Dad some love before you go brush your teeth.
Lucy looked my way for approval. I nodded, and she hopped across the room to give our dad a hug. Afterward, Lucy disappeared to brush her teeth. I closed the door behind her and walked back over to the bed.
“I should get them to bed soon,” I explained. “But I really want to listen to your story.”
“No, the kids are waiting on you. I can finish telling you about ole Jeff after you’ve got the kids to bed. My bones are really starting to throb. Maybe if I just close my eyes for a few minutes, I’ll be ready to finish the story when you get back.”
“Can I get you something for the pain? You’ve got a couple of those pain pills left. Want one?”
“No, I don’t like how those upset my stomach. But is there still some pot lying around here somewhere?”
“Bobby got into the last stuff we bought, but I always try to hide some away just in case you need it. Want me to bring the bong when I come back to check on you?”
“Maybe by then I’ll feel up to building a fire. Is it cold out tonight?”
“Good—just the way I like it.”