“This is going to kill Zeke.” Dan Baker pocketed the auction notice and was about to ask the volunteer at the hospital reception desk which room his friend was in.
“Hey Dan, got a minute?” Ella Parker one of the Jerrod Community Hospital nurses, walked up beside him.
“Sure, Ella. What’s up?”
She pointed to a small consultation room off the nurse’s station. “Wanted to give you a heads-up before you see Zeke. Seems like everything is goin’ wrong for him about now. Drake brought his dad in last night, saying Zeke’s knee was hurting him. There are bruises.”
Dan folded his six-foot-six frame into one of the sparse metal chairs. “Bruises? What kind of bruises? Like you get when you fall?”
Ella sat and brushed her greying auburn hair back. “Yeah, but Doc Chin was a little suspicious of it happening on both knees. I’m not accusing anybody of anything, but I don’t want this to be . . .”
Dan leaned toward her. “Wait a minute, Ella. Let’s get this real clear. Do you think he might have been pushed, by – well – do you think he was pushed by Drake?”
Ella motioned Dan to lower his voice. She took her cell phone out of her pocket, ran her finger down the screen and put it back in her pocket. “Zeke told the E.R. nurse he’d tripped after they had a little argument. You need to know all this before you go in. He’s had trouble with his pacemaker, has had several big arguments with Drake. It worries me – worries me a lot.”
“The pacemaker not working?”
“There are some problems with it, but I worry it may be something with the stents they put in last year. I hope I’m wrong, but he’s acting like he isn’t getting enough oxygen. I’d wonder if one or both might be clogged up.
“As for the pacemaker, it showed some irregularities. They put the remote reader on it and hooked up with Hedrick Memorial. We’re hoping for results sometime this afternoon.
“Anyway, Drake came in and things went to hell. They were arguing, and the monitor went crazy. I hustled in there, and Drake was leanin’ over, poking his finger in Zeke’s chest. Couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was the meanest whisper I’ve ever heard.”
Ella stood and walked to the door and looked down the hall. “Dan, I pulled Drake away from Zeke’s bed and aimed him out the door,” she whispered. “He gave me a look like he wanted to do something bad to me. He narrowed his eyes to just slits. I’d never seen him do that before. It was spooky.” She brushed away a piece of tape from her scrub greens.
“He may be my sister’s boy, but ever since he came back here to help Zeke, he’s been a regulation turd.”
“You know, when we were growing up together here, I never would have thought about Zeke with gray hair and bruises in the hospital. I . . .” She pulled her buzzing cell phone out of her pocket. “Look, I gotta go. I’ll keep a watch on this and let you know. Don’t talk to Zeke about what I told you, all right? Tell Donna I said hello.”
Dan followed her into the hallway and turned down the wing toward Zeke’s room. He paused at the half-open door. He rapped, waited for a quiet, hoarse “come in.” He was stunned by what he saw.
Almost as tall as Dan, Zeke looked frail, skeletal. His right leg was propped up on several pillows. The livid bruise was visible on the right knee. It was a mixture of blue, black and a greenish tinge. The bruise on the other knee was not as bad but was at about the same place as the left, like he might have fallen on his knees.
“Damn, buddy! What happened to you?”
Zeke struggled to sit partway up and looked down at his legs. “Hey, Daniel! Me and Drake was having a little argument last night and I stood up too quick and got all tangled up in my pajama bottoms and whack! I’m on the floor.”
Dan leaned over and looked in his friend’s bloodshot eyes. “Did Drake do this to you?” He could tell by the way Zeke looked there was something very wrong.
“Huh? On no, Dan. He did not. Not at all. An’ I mean that. You hear me?” He laid back on the pillow and looked at the IV line running to his left hand and the blood pressure cuff on the right.
“I’d take all this shit outta me and offa me if I thought I could get away with it.” He laid back against the pillow and stared up at the saline drip on the pole beside the bed. “But, they’d do it to me all over again. So, I got no choice but to wait.”
Dan took his old friend’s free hand. “Wait for what? What is the doc tellin’ you?”
“Not much so far today. He muttered something about an unusual heart rate this morning and said he wanted to wait to hear from the boys in Abilene before saying anything more.”
Dan looked at the monitor on the pole besides Zeke’s bed. “Ella said Drake was here earlier.”
“He was here all right. He busts in, not so much as a how-do-you-do, wantin’ me to sign a bunch of papers he had. Had to do with power of attorney or some such thing.
“I said I wanted to look them over one more time and he got all huffy. I ended up tellin’ him to leave the papers and come back tomorrow when I felt better. He grabbed the papers and stormed outta here real mad. That took a lot of nerve considering I had to take care of his DWI fine right after he moved back.
“I think it was a mistake to get him back here. You know, he seemed happy doing what he was doing in Abilene, but I got no choice. If he can’t handle it, or if he screws it up, then it’s all over. We got two spray planes sittin’ out there. Number One is overdue for an engine overhaul and the bank all but owns the other one. I thought he’d jump at the chance to keep the business runnin’.”
Zeke shifted from side to side in the bed, held his chest as he coughed. “There are these GPS units you can put in a plane that show you a map of where you’re spraying, what your passes look like on the ground. Those are fifty thousand each. If we could afford that, we’d get more business. But we can’t afford it unless we get more business. I dunno,” Zeke turned to stare out the window a moment, then threw the sheet off.
“Help me sit up.”
Dan took Zeke’s left hand and helped him pivot to a sitting position. “How’s that?”
“Better. I get tired of layin’ here, waitin’.”
Dan could feel the weakness in Zeke’s hand. It was obvious from the tentative feel of his grip that his friend was losing strength.
Zeke paused, looked around to the room’s solitary window, then back to Dan. “You know, the one positive thing coming out of Drake’s decision to be here is Freddy Paz. He’s a Cracker-Jack airframe and powerplant guy. It would be hard to justify having him full time, but he brought some pretty good business with him.
“He installed all of the new electronic equipment in the sheriff’s dispatch center and their vehicles. He’s done some work on that kind of stuff for the school district and a couple of businesses. It’s interesting to see the way he’s blended into the community. Sometimes it’s hard for an outsider – real hard for a Mexican outsider – to find their place here.”
He looked around the room, down at the IV tube in his had. “What were we talkin’ about?”
He lay back on the bed, and pulled the sheet up to this chest and stared at the ceiling. “You know, all this was so different, better all the way ‘round when Bertie was here, but . . .” He faced away, toward the window, and was quiet for a moment. “I’m kinda tired, Dan.” He spoke without looking back.
Ella was waiting for Dan in the hall. They walked together toward the reception desk. “You told me. Pretty bad. Ella, I don’t like those bruises.”
“Me neither, but there’s not a damned thing we can do about it as long as Zeke sticks to his story. I told him the sheriff ought to know about the bruises if there was any possibility of domestic violence. Doc Chin also wanted to call the sheriff. But, Zeke was adamant. So, we let it go.” Ella looked down for a moment, wiped her eye with her index finger, sniffed and looked up.
“You headed out?”
“Yep, gotta go do cotton stuff.”
“I’ll walk out with you.”
They went down the corridor, turned left at the gift shop, through the double doors and out onto the lawn next to the parking lot.
Dan was almost in his Suburban when he stopped. He turned in time to see Ella reach the hospital’s front door. “Hey, Ella,” he shouted. “Wait a minute.” He pulled the auction notice from his pocket and walked back up the sidewalk. Ella walked back toward him with a puzzled look on her face.
“You need to look at this.” Dan waited for her to scan it. He knew she didn’t have a clue when she gasped and put her hand over her mouth.
When she looked up, her eyes were moist, but Dan knew they were tears of rage. “That incredible asshole! How could he auction off Alberta’s house? I mean, their house?”
“I thought you’d feel that way. I almost didn’t show you, but there’s somethin’ not right about this. I don’t think Zeke knows and I don’t think he’d agree to it. I think that was what Drake was getting around to when Zeke sent him away.” Dan took the paper back from Ella and put it in his shirt pocket.
“What’s going to happen, Dan?”
“Not sure. I’ve got to give it some thought. It’s none of my business . . .”
“But Dan, somebody’s got to look out for Zeke’s interests. Don’t get me wrong. I’m family and I’m gonna do everything I can, but he needs you. You guys have been best buds all your lives.”
“Yeah. I’m gonna have to do a lot of thinking about this. I’ve got until next Tuesday to shake it out.”
“What happens next Tuesday?”
“It’s the deadline for ads for the paper. The ad proof came from Jack Knowles. I assume Drake paid for it, so Jack’s obligated.
He turned to walk back to the parking lot. “Keep this under your hat for a while. I feel like I’ve gotta talk to Drake about all this. I don’t know how I’m gonna do it. I’ve got to get it out of the way quick. We’re going to Fort Worth to meet Nelly’s boyfriend two weeks from this Saturday. You know the drill. Everybody on their best behavior, sizin’ the other guy up, decidin’ whether to kill his ass or not,” he said with a smile.
“Isn’t Nelly close to graduation? She’s still majoring in some kinda engineering, right?”
“What about her fella?”
“Of course, we hear nothing but good things from Nelly about him, couldn’t expect otherwise. It sounds like he’s pretty smart, microbiology, somethin’ like that. He’s some kinda Yankee. Pennsylvania, I think.
“You all right with holdin’ off on this auction ad?”
Ella had finished dabbing her eyes and put the handkerchief back in her pocket. “But it’s gonna be tough to look my nephew in the eye.”
She looked away and then back, shielding her eyes from the midday sun. “To change the subject, and I don’t want to shock you or anything, but I’m thinking about dating again.”
“Yep. There’s life in the ole girl yet.”
Ella pulled an imaginary zipper across her lips.
“All you left out was ‘where?’ We’re keeping it quiet right now.”
“You gonna make me guess?”
“Guess all you want to.” She looked at her watch. “Hey, it’s time for rounds. I gotta go.” She looked down at her phone, waved to Dan and hurried back to the hospital.
* * *
At noon, he drove by the high school in time to see his wife LaDonna walking toward the cafeteria with a fellow teacher. She saw him and waved her friend on. “What’s going on, Danny?” She got in the passenger side of the Suburban.
“Danny.” That always brought warmth up his insides. She could read his worry from yards, even miles away and knew the boyhood form of his name would give him some peace. It had been that way for their thirty years together. He handed her the ad proof.
“This can’t be.” The paper trembled in her hand. “What can we do? Can you talk to Drake? I mean, will you talk to him?”
“I don’t see I have any choice. I showed this to Ella. She said the same.”
“How long will Zeke be in the hospital?”
“Ella says he may be gettin’ out tomorrow.”
LaDonna checked her watch. “I’ve got to get to the cafeteria. Are you going to see Drake today?”
“Naw, we’ve got a shipment of tires comin’ in and I’ve got to go to a co-op meetin’ at the bank. By the time I go out to the south place to check the center pivot, the day’s over. It’ll for sure be Friday. Maybe we’ll know somethin’ about Zeke by then.”
“There’s the bell. I’ll see you later.” She patted his hand, got out of the Suburban, waved and headed for the cafeteria.
Dan watched her in his mirror as he pulled away. He turned the corner, headed for his store. He passed the courthouse, drove by the Jerrod Citizen and turned toward D. Baker Tires. He slowed as he passed the shell of the movie theater. “Yeah, that’s us, a burned-out little cotton town.”