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Fall 2004, Volume 22.1

Fiction

 

D'Wayne HodginPhoto of D'Wayne Hodgin.

Force of Habit

D'Wayne Hodgin (MA, University of Idaho) has published poetry, short fiction, and personal essays in numerous journals, including Pig Iron Press, Louisiana Literature, West Wind Review, The Palouse Journal, Arnazella, and Snapdragon. As a lecturer, he teaches literature and writing courses at the University of Idaho.

 

Flo stopped reading. Jack's eyes were dead; she knew they were. He lay on his side, head propped on the pillow. His face was thin but not gaunt; the flesh didn't droop into the cheek cavities as the flesh on bed-ridden old people did. He was still young, only fifty-six years old.

She had visited Bethel Nursing Home and seen the atrophied faces of the aged. Her Jack was not like them; his face still seemed solid to her. But she was glad his eyes were closed. When she had started the afternoon readings three years ago, she knew he liked them—his eyes told her. Now, when his eyes were open, they stared unresponsively at the ceiling or wall or a button on her dress—at some fixed point that didn't involve her or the reading or even himself. Today his eyes were closed, and she couldn't tell if he was awake or asleep; his breathing was the usual erratic whisper.

Out of habit, she picked up the book and resumed reading, her voice constant. He had been a pilot in the Air Force; that was how they had met in Biloxi, Mississippi, twenty-eight years ago. He was stationed at Keesler Air Force Base, and she had met him at the officers' club through a captain friend of hers.

"Flo Whitson," her friend had said, "this is Jack Enneking." He was short, not much taller than she, blonde and tanned dark brown.

"Jack Inn-uh-king," she pronounced each syllable. "I don't think I've ever met anyone with that name before," she said, just to make conversation.

He looked at her, and his eyes, light blue, almost the color of the sky out over the Gulf, sparkled.

"Maybe we should introduce you to the rest of these men." He then flicked his hand to indicate the room filled with officers and said, "Most of them are Jacks of one kind or another."

"Yes, I'll bet they are, but I meant your last name."

He held her elbow and directed her toward a table away from the crowd at the bar.

"Actually, both my names are common where I come from. As a matter of fact, I have two cousins named Jack Enneking, and there's another guy who lives down near Clarkston with the same name. It's kind of like Joe Bob Wilkerson around here."

She laughed. She had known at least a dozen Joe Bobs, and there were more Wilkersons than you could shake a stick at.

When they reached the table, her captain friend left to order drinks.

"Just where are you from that you're so common?"

"Idaho. North-central Idaho, the part no one knows about."

She waved her hand to cover the room, "So when do we start the introductions?"

As he held her chair for her, he said, "Actually, I've changed my mind. We'll just forget these other guys if that's all right with you."

"That's okay." She glanced around the room. "Most of these men do look like Jacks, really, of one kind or another. And some of them probably don't even know it." She returned her gaze to him, "At least you know you're a Jack."

He laughed fully, but not in such a way to draw attention to her or to himself.

"Touché," he said. He was stout; his arms in his short-sleeved khaki shirt were muscled, but not bulging. And his chest was full, not thin or barreled. He was obviously bright and not just any old Jack.

She decided she liked him.

A few weeks later, on their first night together as her hand lay on his bare chest, she asked him, "Why do you wear all those colorful little ribbons on your shirt?"

"Do you mean where I got them?"

"No. I know you got them, at least most of them, flying in Vietnam. But why do you wear them?"

He was silent a moment. "That's a good question. I think that's what I like most about you. You know the right question. Or better yet, you're not afraid to ask it."

"Is that a compliment, that I'm that smart?"

"You see what I mean? Just exactly the right question."

"You do realize that you haven't answered either of them."

"Ah, so you really do want answers. The first is, `Vanity,' and the second is `I guess so.' Exactly what you thought, anyway."

She didn't sense that he was trying to go her one better, so she lay quietly and curled the short hairs on his chest around her finger. She barely heard him whisper,

"Do you think you'll always be able to ask me questions like that?"

"Is that a proposal?"

"Yes."

"I think so."

"Good."

And so they were married.

When he brought her north to the farm and store in Idaho, he still flew cropdusters. She convinced him to quit even before the symptoms started. She had said, "It's the most dangerous kind of flying you can do."

"I know," he said, and she was unsure if he said it out of resignation or wonder. But he quit.

She knew he loved the old biplanes, so when he came home from Spokane three years ago, almost completely immobile, she ransacked the high school library for any books about the barn-storming twenties—fiction, non-fiction, magazines. At first the readings bored her; she paid more attention to his glowing eyes than to the words she read. But after a while, she began to see the open skies, the earth spiraling about her as the plane she was in dived toward a golden-green corn field for a handful of onlookers. Months passed, and his eyes died. The life went out of her readings; the afternoons became a habit. He never responded, so she read each day until she grew tired.

 

The room had grown dark. Flo closed the book, slid it onto the night stand beside Jack's bed, and crossed the room to the window. She pulled the curtains open. The day had been unsettled: a typical May day in north-central Idaho—early blue changing to light haze, then the mottled sky, and finally this merging gray in the afternoon. She thought, "Before night we'll have rain and sunshine, maybe sleet or snow."

She looked through the window at the green hill sloping up to the sky. The wheat on the hillside was just pencil high, stirring in the rising wind, too short still to billow like it would a few weeks from now. In summer, the full-blown wheat would mask the road cutting across the hill. In winter, the road would appear no different from the plowed, dark earth. Now, in the ripening, green field, it was a blemish. Suddenly, Zeno was on the road half dancing, half running, thin arms kiltered above his head, thin fingers bent but moving only as the wrists moved, such long, still fingers caught in the motion of the hands. His sparse, gray hair curled unkempt behind his ears. He wore baggy, gray-striped coveralls that hung loosely about his skinny legs and long torso. She saw him laugh in the wheat field—face turned upward, toothless mouth open wide—and felt the past easing up on her again.

Before she had come to Bethel, Jack had told her everything—the small farming community; the tight family circles; the hardware store; the dim-witted, helpless older brother. She had no false images of what life in Bethel would be like. Looking forward to being cast here, an outsider fitting into an order alien from the easy, carefree life she had lived in Biloxi, she expected her love for Jack to be bigger than any loneliness she might feel. And it was.

They enjoyed building the habits they would live with. She helped Jack in the store; customers teased her about her southern drawl, but they were also charmed. The store flourished, so they spent more time there. As a result, they leased most of their 300 acres of land, keeping only enough to raise a family garden and hay for the dozen or so head of cattle. Sundays they worked at home. She usually kept the garden; he, the fields and cattle. She enjoyed digging her hands into the dark earth. She would burrow her blue-jeaned knees in the moist ground and delicately weed with her slender fingers the broccoli, the peas, the potatoes.

Zeno did not intrude; he had his own bathroom and could clean and dress himself. Yet she liked taking care of him. At night or on rainy Sundays, she mended his clothes. He had several pairs of painter coveralls that he tore on his daily excursions through the surrounding countryside. She enjoyed watching his games, giving him small chores to do around the house.

Once, on a Sunday afternoon in early fall after the garden had finished, she felt the urge to hold Zeno close to her. She and Jack were sitting on the front deck—he was dozing in the warmth of Indian Summer; she had read the weekly Bethel Bugle for the third time and was looking at Zeno, who knelt on the sloping lawn, his back to them. The Schurtungs passed in their purple Ford pickup, going fast on the gravel road, raising a long, slow-falling cloud of dust in the windless air. Zeno burst into laughter. The falling dust sparkled in the September slant of sunlight, and Zeno stretched his arms forward as if to stroke the dust and hold its sparkle in his long, thin hands. His arms wavered, outstretched, minutes after the dust had settled to the road and the close juniper bushes. She wanted to touch his hands, soothe him, but she didn't. In the twenty-seven years they had shared the same house, she had touched him only when he was in pain: to replace Band-Aids, to clean scrapes and cuts, once to pick porcupine quills from his hands.

Now, watching from the bedroom as Zeno skittered across the wheat field, Flo remembered the early tension to have children. After their first couple of years together in Bethel without any children, people began to wonder. Bethel was a Catholic community with lots of land. Families of ten or twelve children were commonplace. Though none of their customers nor friends came right out and attacked Flo for being barren, she felt the pressure of their implying questions.

"When are you and Jack going to help us make Bethel a bigger town?—Flo, I believe you spend too much time in this store—Well, it's high time you started filling up that big old house of yours."

Their initial, tentative lovemaking became intense. Sometimes she would be on top and pull Jack up into her. But she couldn't make him get her pregnant. Finally, she assumed that she was infertile. Jack, though she thought he felt the same way, never blamed her.

Once he had said, "We enjoy our lovemaking, Flo. Sooner or later we'll have a child. It's only a matter of time. Hell, look at Ron and Irene Schwartz, married six years with no kids, and everybody talking about them. Then, bam-bam-bam-bam, four kids in five years. Shut Bethel up, you bet."

Still, she cried into his chest, "But, Jack, I want a child now."

He eased his hand along her shoulder and rubbed the ridges of her neck beneath her hair. They made love more violently and lay exhausted afterward.

Nightly, she lived with this urgency to be pregnant. Throughout each month, in daytime, the memory of their nightly lovemaking filled her with expectation, and when her period started, she would become depressed and cry herself to sleep.

They had been married just over seven years when Jack had his first accident. It was a Monday, no customers in the store. She was at the desk in the middle of the store, absentmindedly flipping through the receipts. Outside, the sun suddenly popped from behind a cloud, and the entire front of the store flared brightly alive. She looked up at Jack, who was at the front of the store along the south wall, stretching to place a large, earthenware mixing bowl on the top shelf. The bowl slipped from his hands and crashed to the floor, sending shards under all the front tables. But strangely, Jack didn't move; he stood there a moment, his hands suspended upward. He seemed frozen, his face blank, his arms still. And though it was April, and the store was filled with light, Flo felt cold as if somehow she had seen what death was like.

At first, the accidents were spaced far enough apart that there seemed no connection between them. Four years passed. Then one Sunday as they left church, Jack fell beside the car. One moment he was talking to Henry Burgmeier, the next he was on the ground.

Henry laughed, "Get up, boy. What's your problem?"

But Jack just lay there propped up on his hands and said, "My legs won't move." They helped him to his feet, and after a while he got the feeling back, but they were all perplexed.

"Just think what would have happened if you'd been driving into town on those curves," Henry said. "You'd better see a doctor."

And so they did. Dr. Forrest had been Jack's family doctor for over forty years and was just as straightforward as Jack, so when he advised them, after all the tests, to see a neurologist in Spokane, Jack demanded, "Tell me exactly what I have, Larry."

Dr. Forrest slumped back in his thin, brown leather recliner, looked steadily at Jack, and said, "I'm no specialist, Jack. I can make mistakes on something I've never seen before. But from your symptoms and tests, I'm sure you have something wrong with your nervous system."

Outside the office, the street was quiet; it was fall and harvest was finished. The students were in school. There were no buzzing fluorescent lights. The three of them sat still so that the chairs were silent under their weight. Suddenly, Flo knew how terrifying silence can be. She looked down at her hands clenched in her lap and listened to her breath flaring through her nostrils. She repeated to herself, "I must listen to my breath." Again and again she said it as if her life depended on hearing the air move in and out of her body.

"What is it, Larry?" Jack's voice was distant, like a bell somewhere below her breathing.

"I'm not sure. You really need to see a neurologist up in Spokane."

"What is it?"

Flo held her breath and stared at Dr. Forrest's anxious face. He looked old, tired. "M.S., Jack. I think you have M.S."

"No!" Flo screamed at him.

The two men were surprised. Jack grabbed her hand as she stood up. Dr. Forrest looked at her, and his jaw relaxed. He nodded to her and said, "I hope you're right, Flo."

Jack tugged on her hand, and she sat as Dr. Forrest named the neurologists he knew of in Spokane, but she heard nothing. She saw the blue veins in the top of Dr. Forrest's bald head as he shuffled through his notes, and she thought, "You ugly old man."

Now, outside the bedroom window, the field was flooded in sunlight. Zeno was gone. A moment ago he had been there, but now the field was empty, and she knew she would have to look for him. She thought, "A good chance to get outside. Last sunlight of the day, probably. I can turn some ground for planting; otherwise, it'll be too hard when the weather settles." It was still too early to plant, but the ground needed to be readied. She closed the curtains, but the sun filtered through so that the room glowed softly. She passed the bed, eased the door shut, and slid quietly down the thickly carpeted hall.

For the last three years now this had been her routine, but the habit had started twelve years ago when the attacks became more serious. Jack's legs were useless, so he was confined to a wheelchair. Flo wouldn't hire a nurse; they couldn't anyway: their income was sufficient to keep them out of debt but not enough to pay for a nurse to care for Jack. The land and house were inherited, paid for; they still had their lease income, and Flo sold the store and invested the money. So, for the past twelve years, she had spent all her time taking care of Jack.

In the early years she stayed home with Zeno occasionally, but that was rare, not the necessary habit of caring for Jack now. One day in the second year after her arrival in Bethel, Zeno had a bad morning. He was unable to put on his shoes: the strings were knotted beyond his ability to undo them. With his wiry fingers he had managed only to pull the knots tighter. Afterward, he was upset, wouldn't eat his breakfast, buttoned only one side of his coveralls, and refused to do even the easy chore of putting out the garbage. She stayed home with him. After Jack left for the store, Flo opened the door to her sewing room so she could listen for Zeno's comings and goings.

The weather was good, but Zeno did not leave the house. He wandered aimlessly around, pulling books off shelves and fishing through kitchen cabinets. He was a good half-foot taller than Jack and could reach into all the shelves in the house. After an hour or two of Zeno's fumblings, Flo, out of sheer frustration, marched into the living room and turned on the TV. She went into the kitchen for a glass of water, and when she returned, there was Zeno in the middle of the sofa, absorbed in the television. He had never turned it on during the day. The TV was a nighttime experience; this was something new. The program was a game show; the contestants, a fat woman and an Air Force sergeant, on leave, wearing his dress blues. Flo was sure Zeno understood none of it; he sat there, eyes wide, his forehead stretched and wrinkled. For several minutes Flo stood where Zeno could see her in the doorway from the kitchen, spellbound at his watching this new miracle, and thought, "He's not even a child. No curiosity, only acceptance."

Then, she slipped back into the kitchen, and after a few minutes brought him a stainless steel bowl full of warm popcorn. When she placed the bowl in his lap, he looked up as surprised at her as he was at the TV, and laughed like a child—quick and full, but not high—deep like the forty-year-old he was. She returned to her sewing room, sat down, but couldn't finish the hem she was mending until she quit crying.

Over the next few weeks Flo taught Zeno how to make simple sandwiches and dial the number for the store. He could watch TV, make himself a snack, and call if he had any problems. She was free from worrying about him.

The day he got into the porcupine was the only time she felt guilty about leaving him alone. She always drove home from the store an hour before Jack would start walking; that was his way of exercising. As she slowed for their driveway, she saw Zeno sitting on the front deck, his head bowed. He didn't move as she pulled into the driveway. She thought he was asleep, but when he felt her weight on the deck, he looked up at her. He had cried so much that his eyes were puffed shut, and no more tears would come. He had gone outside, found a porcupine, returned to the house, and sat there for hours, unable to open the door because of the quills in his hands. He didn't think to walk into town or to pull them out with his teeth. They had been in so long that the wounds had festered and oozed puss as she pulled the quills out one by one with needle-nose pliers while he cried big sobs with no tears.

He kept saying, "My hands burn, Flo."

But he held them still, palms open to her, and looked at her as if to say "Hurry!" and "Don't do it!" at the same time. She was just finishing when Jack walked up the road. She bathed Zeno's hands with warm water, then wiped them with a cloth soaked in alcohol. Because his hands were swollen, she stayed home the next few days to take care of him. Then, he returned to his TV and snack routine, and she returned to the store.

Now, since she had to stay home with Jack, Zeno had gotten used to having her around. He always asked for some snack that he was incapable of preparing. He had grown less interested in television, spending more time outside. Even in January with the temperature below zero, he would wear only a light coat on sunny days and roam the hills around the house. Like a child, he would dance across the hills, arms waving, until he was exhausted. Somehow he always made it back home before collapsing somewhere in the yard or house. At various times Flo had found him under the juniper shrubs out front, or on the back porch, or propped against one of the firs along the side of the house. Usually, when he disappeared, Flo would stop what she was doing to look for him. At the back porch today, she picked a spade from the tool rack so she could work the ground in the garden before searching for Zeno.

Oddly enough, the sounds were what Flo usually noticed most. Back in Biloxi, the days were filled with noise—horns, sirens, whistles, airplanes in and out of Keesler. But people also, voices all around. There was hardly any quiet except late at night, walking along the beach. Even then the repetition of the waves, the pulling of the water at the edge of the beach was constant. And the truck traffic on Highway 90, just a stone's throw from where the Gulf lapped at the beach, never stopped. She could almost hear the deep diesels urging up out of Pascagoula, the whine as they flew along the highway towards Biloxi.

But here, just outside Bethel, there was a barrage of noise unimaginable. The wind always whispered in the Douglas firs just below the house. Though the nearest neighbor was over a quarter mile away, she could hear, most afternoons, the children playing in their yard. Highway 195 was over
three miles away, but she could hear not only the bore of the logging trucks, but even the shrill of someone's pickup. She could always hear the passenger jets some thirty-thousand feet up before she would look up to find their vapor trails. Few jet paths were directly over Bethel, but all flights heading south out of Spokane to Boise or Denver or Salt Lake or perhaps Phoenix/Tucson, Las Vegas were high enough that Flo could see their vapor trails in the big sky above Bethel.

Some still days she could even hear the two-foot wide stream that trickled down from the butte rising across the road and that puddled its way a hundred yards below the house toward the stand of Doug fir. She had dammed the flow in a couple places to back up enough water so she could water the garden twice a week during summer without using their good well water. The stream flowed so slowly from late June through August that it would take two or three days to fill her reservoirs enough to water her 3,000 square feet of garden. Still, she could hear the water as it moved almost imperceptibly across their land.

Before Jack became ill, as she lay in bed at night, the window open to Jack's need for fresh air, she could hear conversations out on the prairie, perhaps five or six miles away. Sometimes she would walk in the house at night, drawn to the picture window in the living room that opened above the deck to the prairie stretching miles beyond. She could see into the Clearwater Mountains, at least twenty-five miles away, a pair of headlights working its way along some forest road. The lights would stop, pin-points like stars come to Earth, and Flo thought she could hear the faint opening and closing of pickup doors.

In Biloxi, birds were everywhere, all kinds—seagulls, black birds, robins, whippoorwills, redbirds, mocking birds, starlings, sparrows—all making noise so that after a while you didn't notice them. In Bethel, Flo noticed birds sometimes seeming days away, almost like a whisper from across the hills, especially the quaking squawk of pheasants. She thought she never missed the sound of a bird's singing anywhere around the house, down along the stream, or in the Doug fir, or across the road into the woods on the rising butte.

But today, the air was silent and still, unusual for May, and warm, another change in the weather. Only a few high, puffed clouds sat in the sky. The rear of the house, facing north, was shaded. She stepped briskly beyond the shadow of the house toward the garden, tilled along the slope of the hill for drainage. She stopped short; Zeno had unrolled a sheet of black plastic mulch to catch the heat and was curled up on it at the edge of the garden. She eased up to him and stared down at his thin face.

She remembered the day three years ago, and her hands tightened on the handle of the spade. She was shopping with Jack in Bethel. He could still talk, but his tongue was thick, and sometimes his jaw would flop uncontrolled so that she had to concentrate on what he was saying in order to piece his sentences together. She was pushing him along Main Street in front of the Cash and Carry when his head slumped forward on his chest. She thought he was asleep, but then he slouched lower in the wheel chair. She stopped just as he slid from the seat. His thin legs were twisted beneath him, and his head rested on the foot pedals. When she put her hands under his armpits to lift him into the chair, his body shifted through her grasp, and his head banged on the sidewalk. She began screaming. Al Gehring, the owner of the Cash and Carry, rushed out, lifted Jack as if he were a sack of earth, and carried him the three blocks to the doctor's office.

Then, she had settled into this final routine of the last three years—feeding Jack the soups, the juices, the concentrated liquids; cleaning his excrement; bathing him; then the reading, the garden, Zeno.

As the sun slid behind a cloud, the shadow eased down the hill and across the garden. She was chilled, and the thought came to her again. Usually, it happened at night just as she went to sleep; sometimes she awoke to it in the mornings. Now, as she stood above Zeno, the thought rang as clear as the snapping of tree limbs under the weight of ice in mid-January.

"I am still young."

She looked at the white of Zeno's face. He never tanned. She looked at his long gray hair, at the rough whiteness of his neck. She didn't think her arms up; they came up on their own, a simple gesture of habit, sure and slow like her voice reading from the sky above Jack's bed or like her fingers methodical in the wet earth around her plants.

The sun broke through the clouds, and the hillside gleamed. Her hands wrenched forward, and the spade smashed into the earth just beyond Zeno's head. She turned toward the house, her eyes watering from the brightness, stumbled on the damp earth, and fell, her hands burrowing into the moist ground at the edge of the garden. She arose and ran to the porch. The door banged shut behind her as she flew through the house. She jerked the bedroom door open. The figure on the bed was still. She rushed across the room and grabbed the wrist. The pulse was there, small, irregular, but there.

She slouched to the floor beside his bed, her head resting against the mattress, and said, "Thank God, my love. Thank God you're alive."


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