Johnny Cash was singing, sounding flat. Frank turned off the radio and stared at the highway, trying not to think about what his wife had said on the telephone. “You can come and get us. There’s nothing else they can do here.” What Willa had said sounded like a complete sentence, but he hoped he hadn’t understood. Maybe someplace there would be someone who could do something, maybe it was just that the people in Lubbock couldn’t. They would go to Fort Worth or Houston, wherever they had to.
He focused on the horizon. Over in the southwest, not clouds but something had changed the sky’s color from faded denim to something a little different—looked like an eraser smudge on a piece of pale blue paper. There had to be something else that could be done. He was only four months old, that little boy with his mother’s black hair, that baby who seldom ever cried. Frank felt the wheel drift off the pavement and corrected carefully, quickly. She would be depending on him. He had to get himself collected.
He’d never heard Willa scream, not even when she was in labor with Melanie. She seldom raised her voice. That day, five days ago, she had screamed. Even though he was in the barn, he’d heard her and known something awful had happened. When he got to the baby’s room she was holding him and trying to give artificial respiration. She couldn’t stop to explain, he knew. She breathed into little George’s nose and mouth again and again, little short puffs in perfect rhythm. The baby’s left leg twitched. “He’s breathing, I think. Wait just one second and let’s see,” Frank said. He spoke softly, afraid he’d cry.
“He’s breathing but he’s not opening his eyes, Frank. Something’s wrong, bad wrong. We’ve got to get to the doctor.” She flicked twice on the sole of the little boy’s left foot with a fingertip, like shooting a marble. “See, he won’t wake up. He always wakes up when I do that. Get the pickup, Frank; we’ve got to get to the doctor.”
On the way into town, Willa, holding the baby, never taking her eyes from the rising and falling of his chest, explained what had happened. Her voice flat and distant, she said she had put him down for a nap after he had nursed and that two hours later she had gone in his room to check on him, not because he had cried or anything, just because she liked to look at him while he slept. As soon as she walked in she saw he wasn’t breathing. His skin was pale and his lips and fingers had turned blue. There was nothing in the bed, no blanket or pillow that could have smothered him. He was lying just the way she put him down, on his back. He hadn’t had a fever or a runny nose or any cough or anything. Nothing was different from usual. Except that he had stopped breathing—and she had not been with him when it happened. She had been sitting down, resting in the living room, drinking a Coke. After she told it, she looked over at Frank and tears began rolling down both her cheeks. “I’m afraid he’ll die, Frank, and it will be my fault,” she said.
He drove with one hand and wiped her tears with the other. Words wouldn’t help, he knew. Driving to town usually took fifteen minutes. They were at the doctor’s office in ten. He yelled at the office nurse that something bad was wrong with the baby and they had to see the doctor. She didn’t question Frank, just pointed to a room and ran to get Dr. Cox.
The doctor put oxygen on little George and checked his reflexes and examined him all over. He shook his head and said that there wasn’t anything he could do, that they had to get him to a hospital right away. Frank saw things moving in slow motion. He knew the doctor was talking to him, to Willa, and yelling to somebody else, somewhere. But Frank wasn’t really there. He couldn’t be. He felt himself watching from low down near the floor in a corner.
Then they were in the funeral home’s hearse that doubled as the town’s ambulance, with the undertaker’s assistant holding the oxygen mask on George’s tiny face. And Willa was next to him, holding his hand with one of hers and touching the baby with the other. She was shivering like it was winter and moaning a low sound he’d never heard. Would they ever make it to Lubbock? Or would the ambulance just drive on and on into the setting sun that was shining directly into his eyes and making all these tears fall?
For two days he paced or sat or stared or held Willa when she was able to be still. George was no better, no different. He lay like a tiny beautiful statue in the child-sized hospital bed. Beside him, an oxygen tank stood like a sentinel. He was fed through a tube taped into his right nostril. Doctors came and went and then they came together, a group of three, to tell them that more tests had to be done to be certain, brain wave tests, deep reflex tests, other things. After they left, Willa said he should call and have someone come get him, go back and take care of things on the ranch, see about Melanie and his mother. She spoke to him from somewhere far away.
His mother had opened the front door on the big house as soon as they drove up. Melanie ran, as fast as a three-year-old can, straight to her daddy. “Hold me, Daddy, hold me.”
“She’s been asking all day when you and Willa are coming home. What happened, Frank? Why didn’t you call this morning? You said you would call. All of my friends and people from church have been asking me and I had nothing I could tell them.”
“I don’t like talking about it with everyone on the party line listening in. There’s nothing new to tell.”
He put Melanie on her feet and she ran immediately to Delia. “Play tea party, Mammaw. Let’s play.”
“I’ll be in the parlor in just a minute. You go and get all the dolls ready for the party. I need to talk to your daddy.” Melanie did exactly as she was told. “Frank, I can’t help thinking that this awful thing might not have happened if you had moved up here like I’ve asked you. Besides, that’s what your father wanted.”
“Where we live didn’t have anything to do with what happened. The doctors said crib death has no known cause. The only reason the baby’s still alive is because Willa went in to check on him. One minute later and he would have been dead when she found him.” Keeping his voice down took all the self-control he could muster.
“But, here, if Willa had to rest, I would have been watching the baby the whole time.”
“Mother, I came by to tell you that I’m back and taking care of things and to ask you to take care of Melanie for now. I’ll let you know if anything changes. I’ve got to go.”
“Don’t you need something to eat before you go?”
“No, mother, I need to go now.” What he meant was that if he didn’t leave he’d say a lot of things he’d have to apologize for later. Since his father died last July, not a week had gone by that she didn’t mention wanting, no, “needing,” them to move into the big house with her. He wasn’t about to move from the house Willa grew up in. Delia would probably have them sleeping in separate rooms and eating meals on her schedule. She would keep at him about moving, he knew. Today was just one more opportunity she seized on to try to get her way. One more low blow, as far as he was concerned.
Frank managed to get the pickup parked in the hospital’s lot. He took another breath of the thick, humid air and made himself go through the front door. As he walked down the hall to George’s room, a nurse passing him smiled a sad-eyed smile and said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Jackson. Mrs. Jackson and the doctors are waiting for you in the conference room right back here.”
The conference room, holding a table and too many chairs, made him feel like breaking out a window just to get a breath. But there wasn’t any window. From here, you couldn’t see out. He sat down next to Willa and hugged her to his side. The pediatrician introduced the other two doctors who had been consulted to determine whether complete brain death had occurred. Just as plain as that, no frills, he said that awful thing to both of them.
Frank felt Willa’s muscles go rigid. She sat up straight and leaned toward the graphs that the other two had in front of them. They explained the tests they had done and how the only reason the baby was not dead was that a part of his medulla still functioned intermittently. He still quit breathing several times a day. The upper parts of his brain, as Frank understood it, were dead. The lack of oxygen when he stopped breathing that first day had caused that to happen. Nothing could repair it. He wouldn’t even be able to nurse or take a bottle. The tube was the only way. Vegetative state, they said.
And then the doctors used the word “options.” It boiled down to they could leave him here and let him die slowly in the hospital or take him home and let him die there at his own rate. The questions Frank wanted to ask all sounded stupid as he thought them; so he didn’t bother to ask. How soon would it happen? What happens in the meantime? Do we feed and change him and keep someone awake all the time to do artificial respiration? Do we just turn our heads and let him go? Who had answers for those questions? Who was in charge?
Willa asked those and other questions, all in a voice so strong he wasn’t sure it was hers. And finally, she had no more questions. Frank shook his head, “No, I don’t have any other questions.” He knew without asking, after the doctors left them alone, what Willa had decided. He wouldn’t argue. Either way it was going to be awful. “Frank,” she said.
He kissed her gently on the lips. “Shhh. You don’t have to say it. I know,” he said. He leaned against her and she held him with his head on her shoulder, there in that room with no window.
When the nurse came to ask if they needed anything, Willa said, “Yes, we need to get everything ready. We’ll take baby George home as soon as you show us what we need to know to be able to take care of him.”
Neither of them spoke on the trip back to the ranch. The air closed around them, even heavier than it had been in the morning. In the rearview mirror, Frank saw that the smudge on the horizon had darkened but had not grown. He gave up hoping for the rain. Willa held the baby. Sometime near Calverton, she began humming a lullaby.
He didn’t ask her, just drove directly to their house and stopped. They could decide later when to get Melanie, when to explain to Delia. Right now, he wanted to be alone with her and baby George. She sat in the rocker in the bedroom, holding the baby. Frank managed to get the oxygen tank in next to the crib. “I wish he would cry, just once more,” she said. He put his arms around her and kissed the tiny still form in her arms. Willa rocked and hummed.
Frank stood on the front porch, gazing southwest into the distance. A line of dark clouds was outlined by the rapidly falling sun. His father had done the same—stood on the porch and watched the clouds. Often when Frank stood and watched, it was less because the clouds held any interest than because the habit comforted him. He’d imitated his father standing, watching, since he was a child. These clouds kept building, growing, their tops boiling.
Willa had stopped humming. The quiet stillness crept out of the house. And the stillness outside fell around him where he stood. The heavy air pressed at his chest. He wanted to run. Then he saw the clouds advancing, bringing the horizon much closer. In the distance, a funnel spun down from the largest cloud and slowly dropped toward the ground. A second funnel formed. Before long, roaring—the sound of a gang of locomotives—replaced the quiet. Willa, holding the baby, came out and stood beside him. He reached for her and they stood together.
The funnels whirled together and became one, heading directly toward them. They waited, not moving. Wind whipped at their clothes and dust blasted their faces. Captured by a barbed wire fence, tumbleweeds, like prisoners, were held to the ground and punished by the wind and flying debris. Frank saw dirt, fence posts, sheets of roofing tin, a dog, all whirling in the great vortex no farther away than the end of the driveway.
Then, as quickly as it had advanced on them, the massive cloud veered and roared away to the southeast. Stillness closed around them again. The baby had ceased breathing. They did not move from the porch. Minutes later the rain began to fall.
Since the day of the baby’s funeral, Frank hadn’t cried. That day, at the graveside service, he had stood dry-eyed, holding his wife, willing her his strength. Afterward, he had taken her home and put her to bed with a kiss on her forehead. When she was asleep, he saddled his horse and rode to the pond and sat on the bank and let himself cry.
His tears were for the baby, for Willa, for himself, for Melanie and his mother, for his favorite dog that died when he was nine, and for every regret he’d ever felt and all the times he’d wanted to cry and never let himself because men don’t. He cried until all he felt was empty. Then he washed his face and gathered himself. Willa would need him to be strong. He’d never seen her fragile before.
That thought, that she might break, kept him going. The weeks since May had been a succession of days he couldn’t remember. Now, somehow August had appeared.
He could tell it was Willa standing in the doorway of the barn. But he couldn’t see her face because the sun was directly behind her surrounding her with a halo and darkening her features. He squinted in her direction and saw her cheeks and elbows and hips, all the angles that weight loss and sadness emphasized. Willa, up and out of the house. A good sign. For the past three months, she had done the necessary things—put food on the table, bathed and dressed Melanie and kept the house neat, but every action was wooden, every step halting. She never left the house; she haunted the room where the baby had slept, staring at the spot where his bed had been, touching the little dresser that held his clothes and toys. She roamed through the other rooms; and she slept, hours and hours, night and day. There were days when he wondered if she had lost her voice. Her paints lay untouched, the records she had danced to gathered dust on top of the record player.
Frank had done all he could. There had been no harvest because the rain came too late. He had moved the cattle to the grass where they were gaining weight as he’d hoped. When he worked at the house or the barn, he let Melanie follow him around and pretend to help. When he had to leave, he took Melanie up the road to her grandmother’s. And at night he held Willa when she dreamed and cried. Now, here she was in the sunshine.
“Frank, there’s a couple of things I want you to do.”
“I’ll do anything I can, honey. What do you need?”
She shifted and took a deep breath, as if she had to gather strength to say what she was thinking. “Tell your mother we’ll move in with her. Do it today before I change my mind. She wants us there and Melanie needs more of a mother than I can be to her.”
He watched her take two more big breaths. He didn’t question her or disagree. She might be right about Melanie. He wiped his hand on a shop rag. Then he asked, “What’s the other thing you want me to do?”
“Put me to work, Frank. Hard work. It’s the only thing I know to do now.”
Saying the words seemed to wear her out. She leaned against the doorframe. He put his arms around her as if she might fall to pieces. Her breathing had gotten ragged. “There’s fence work you can start on tomorrow. There’s a lot of jobs I’ve fallen behind on around here. Willa, I need your help.” He spoke carefully and slowly, taking his time as he would with a spooky mare. A raven glided toward them and then, with two flaps of its wings, changed direction and lit nearby on the scrawny chinaberry tree. Willa pointed toward the bird. Frank nodded. “Yep, the first one this year.”