When the test came back the nurse called them into the examination room and when the doctor entered the room he just looked at them and asked them to sit down. They could tell by the look on his face where matters stood.
Go on ahead, Dad Lewis said, say it.
I’m afraid I don’t have very good news for you, the doctor said.
When they went back downstairs to the parking lot it was late in the afternoon.
You drive, Dad said. I don’t want to.
Are you feeling so bad, honey?
No. I don’t feel that much worse. I just want to look out at this country. I won’t be coming out here again.
I don’t mind driving for you, she said. And we can come this way again anytime if you want to.
They drove out from Denver away from the mountains, back onto the high plains: sagebrush and soapweed and blue grama and buffalo grass in the pastures, wheat and corn in the planted ﬁelds. On both sides of the highway were the gravel county roads going out away under the pure blue sky, all the roads straight as the lines ruled in a book, with only a few small isolated towns spread across the flat open country.
It was sundown when they got home. By then the air was starting to cool off. She parked the car in front of their house at the west edge of Holt on the gravel street and Dad got out and stood looking for a while. The old white house built in 1904, the ﬁrst on the street which wasn’t even much of a street then, and still only three or four houses there yet when he bought it in 1948, the year he and Mary were married. He was twenty- two, working at the hardware store on Main Street, then the old lame man who owned it made up his mind to move away to live with his daughter and he offered Dad the option of purchasing it, and he was a known man in town by then, the bankers knew him, and gave him the loan without question. So he was the proprietor of the local hardware store.
It was a frame house sided with clapboard, two- story with a red shingled roof, with an old- fashioned black wrought iron fence around it and an iron gate with spears and hard loops at the top. Out back was an old red barn and a pole corral grown over with tall weeds, and beyond that there was nothing but the open country.
He went inside to the downstairs bedroom to put on old pants and a sweater and came back out and sat down in one of the porch chairs.
She came out to ﬁnd him. Do you want supper now? I could make you a sandwich.
No. I don’t want anything. Maybe if you could bring me a beer.
You don’t want anything to eat?
You go on ahead without me.
Do you want a glass?
She went inside and returned with the cold bottle.
Thank you, he said.
She went back in. He drank from the bottle and sat looking out at the quiet empty street in the summer evening. The neighbor Berta May’s yellow house next door and the other houses beyond it, running up to the highway, and the vacant lot directly across the street, and the railroad tracks three blocks in the other direction, all of that part of town still empty and undeveloped between his property and the tracks. In the trees in front of the house the leaves were blowing a little.
She brought a tray of crackers and cheese and an apple cut up in quarters and a glass of iced tea. Would you like any of this? She held out the tray to him. He took a piece of apple and she sat down beside him in the other porch chair.
Well. That’s it, he said. That’s the deal now. Isn’t it.
He might be wrong. They’re wrong sometimes, she said. They can’t be so sure.
I don’t want to let myself think that way. I can feel it in me that they’re right. I don’t have much time left.
Oh I don’t want to believe that.
Yeah. But I’m pretty sure that’s how it’s going to be.
I don’t want you to go yet, she said. She reached across and took his hand. I don’t. There were tears in her eyes. I’m not ready.
I know. . . . We better call Lorraine pretty soon, he said.
I’ll call her.
Tell her she doesn’t have to come home yet. Give her some time.
He looked at the beer bottle and held it in front of him and took a small drink.
I might get me some kind of better grade of beer before I go. A guy I was talking to said something about Belgian beer. Maybe I’ll try some of that. If I can get it around here.
He sat and drank the beer and held his wife’s hand sitting out on the front porch. So the truth was he was dying. That’s what they were saying. He would be dead before the end of summer. By the beginning of September the dirt would be piled over what was left of him out at the cemetery three miles east of town. Someone would cut his name into the face of a tombstone and it would be as if he never was.
Nine o’clock in the morning, he was sitting in his chair beside the window in the living room looking out at the side yard at the dark shade under the tree and at the wrought iron fence beyond the tree. He’d eaten his breakfast. He hadn’t been hungry but he’d eaten it and he was thinking he wasn’t going to eat anything anymore he didn’t want to eat, and he was thinking how he wasn’t going to paint the iron fence again in this life, and then Mary came in the room.
She was carrying a watering can. She had washed and dried the breakfast dishes and put them away in the cupboard and had gone out back to set the sprinkler going on the lawn, and now she had come inside to water the houseplants. It was a clear hot day. Not a cloud anywhere. But crossing the room she all of a sudden went down on the ﬂoor like a little loose pile of collapsed clothes. She threw the water can away from her as she fell. The water splashed up on the rose wallpaper and there was a stain growing on the wall.
Darlin, Dad said. You all right? What’s going on?
She didn’t move, didn’t answer.
Mary. Goddamn it. What’s going on here?
He stood and bent over her. Her eyes were shut and her face was sweating and very red. But she was breathing.
He got down on his knees beside her and felt her head. She felt hot. He pulled her toward him and slid his arms under her, propping her up against the couch. Can you hear me? I got to call somebody. I’ll be right back. She made no sign. Is that all right with you if I leave a minute? I’m coming right back. He hurried out to the kitchen and called the emergency number at the hospital. Then he returned and got down on the ﬂoor again and held her and talked to her softly and kissed her cheek and brushed back her damp white hair and patted her arm and waited. After a little while he heard the siren outside and then it stopped and people came up on the front porch and knocked.
Come in here, Dad called. Christ Almighty. What are you knocking for? Come on in here.
They entered the house, two men in white shirts and black pants, and looked at Dad and his wife on the ﬂoor and knelt down and began to attend to her. What happened?
She fainted out. She was walking across the room. Then she just went down on the floor.
The younger of the men stood up and went out to the ambulance and brought back a gurney.
Can you move back, please? he said.
What’s that? Dad said. What are you saying?
Sir, you’ll need to move back so we can take care of her. Are you all right yourself? You don’t look too good.
Yeah, I’m all right. Do what you got to do, and hurry.
They lifted the old white- haired woman onto the wheeled cart and buckled the straps across her chest and legs. Dad got up from the ﬂoor and stood watching. He put his hand on her.
You won’t let nothing happen to her, he said.
No sir. We’ll do our best.
That’s not what I’m saying. Your best might not be good enough. This is my wife here. This lady means everything to me in the world.
I hear you. But—
No. I won’t have no objections on this. You do what I say. Now go on. He bent over close to her face and patted her cheek and kissed her.
The two men wheeled her out to the ambulance. Almost immediately he heard the siren start up again in front of the house, then the diminishing sound of it retreating up the street.
She stayed in the Holt County Memorial Hospital at the south end of Main Street for most of three days. They could find nothing wrong with her except that she was old and she was working too hard and she had exhausted herself by taking care of her husband by herself.
By nightfall of that ﬁrst day she was a little better. But at the hospital they said she still needed her bed rest. The nurse said, Don’t you have somebody that would come in and help you?
I don’t know, she said. Maybe. But I’m worried about my husband. He’s all alone.
Your husband told them he was all right there in the house.
The men who brought you in the ambulance. They asked him and apparently he said he was all right.
Well he isn’t all right. He wouldn’t let on how he really is. Not ever to strangers.
They said he seemed like he could be a little bit hard to get along with.
No, he isn’t. He just gets set in his ways about things. He doesn’t mean anything bad by it. But he’s not well at all. He’s alone in that house without me.
Isn’t there a neighbor or somebody?
Maybe there is. She looked across the room. Would you bring me that phone?
You want to call a neighbor? It’s kind of late, Mrs. Lewis.
I want to talk to Dad. I want to speak to my husband.
But you shouldn’t be talking to anyone on any phone right now. You’re not supposed to be upsetting yourself. Would you bring it to me, she said. I want to make a private call, please. The nurse looked at her and then brought the telephone and set it on the bedside stand and went out. It took a long time for him to answer. Yeah. This is Dad Lewis. His voice sounded tough and old. Honey, are you doing okay? Is that you? Yes. It’s me. Are you doing okay? You’re supposed to be asleep. I thought you’d be resting. I wanted to see how you are. Did they say I called this morning and another time this afternoon? No. They didn’t tell me that. Yeah. Well. I did. What did they tell you about me? she said. They said you need to rest. You need to take it easy and get your strength up. I’m all tired out, honey, she said. When I got here and woke up I was all wet with sweat. You were wet when they come for you. You don’t remember that. No. But will you be all right, do they say? I don’t have any pep. That’s all. Outside the room people were talking in the hallway, and the nurse had come back in to check on her. She’s telling me I got to get off the phone now. Did you get some supper, honey? Yeah. I had something. What did you have? I heated up some soup. But you need to take care of yourself, Dad said. Will you do that? Good night, honey, she said.
They still always slept together as they had since the ﬁrst night so long ago, in the old soft double bed in the downstairs bedroom, even though he was sick and dying now and moved restlessly in the bed in the night. She insisted on being there close beside him, she wouldn’t have it otherwise. Now in the night it was unfamiliar and lonely, and he was desolate without her. At three o’clock he woke and went to the bathroom and came back to bed and lay awake thinking for a long time, until the room began to get a little gray and he could make out the brass handles on the dresser drawers and the mirror on the door to the closet.
In the middle of the morning the old neighbor woman came over and knocked on the front door and then cracked it open without waiting. Hello? Dad, are you here?
Who is it?
It’s Berta May from next door.
Yeah. All right.
Can I come in?
She came in with a young girl behind her and they stood in the living room looking at him. He was in sweatpants and an old flannel shirt.
Mary called, Berta May said. She said you was alone here by yourself.
Well I don’t know what she did that for.
Well she was worried about you.
Yeah, but I’m okay.
Maybe you are. Maybe you aren’t.
Dad looked at her and looked at the girl. You going to sit down? I’m not going to stand up.
No. I come over to see if I could help. To see if you needed something.
You’re sure of that.
I’m doing all right. Who’s this here you got with you? he said.
This is Alice, my granddaughter. Haven’t you met her before?
I see her out in the yard over there across the fence.
She’s living with me now. Say hello to Dad Lewis, honey.
The girl was eight years old, a thin brown- haired girl in blue denim shorts and a white T-shirt.
Hello, she said.
Hello back to you, Dad told her.
Berta May said, You don’t mind me looking out in the kitchen to see if anything needs to be done, do you.
It’s okay out there. It’s just not tidy.
Well, I’ll just take a look. She went out. The girl remained, looking around the room and then at Dad Lewis in his chair.
Why do they call you that? she said.
Because I got a daughter like you. People started calling me that when she was born. A long time ago.
I don’t have a dad. I don’t even know where he is. I don’t ever see him.
I’m sorry to hear that.
Are you sick or something? she said.
You could say so. I got this cancer eating me up.
She studied him for a moment. Is it in your breast? That’s where my mother had hers.
I got it all over me.
Are you going to die?
Yeah. That’s what they tell me.
She looked out the window. You can see Grandma’s house from here. You can see the backyard.
That’s where I saw you. I noticed you yesterday back there, Dad said.
What was I doing?
I don’t know. I couldn’t tell what you were doing.
Was I down on the grass?
Yes. I believe you were.
Then I was working.
What kind of work?
Digging dandelions. Grandma pays me for every one. She’s got a lot of them.
Why don’t you come over here and dig some.
How much would you pay?
The same as your grandmother.
I don’t know, she said. I better go see if she needs any help.
The neighbor woman Berta May washed up the dishes and swept the kitchen and afterward she and her granddaughter went back home and at noon she sent the girl over with a tray covered with a white dish towel. Alice came in and said, Where do you want me to put this?
What have you got?
Grandma made you some lunch. The girl set the tray on a chair and removed the dish towel. There were potato chips and a ham sandwich and a little hill of cottage cheese on a paper plate and a piece of cake wrapped in wax paper. Grandma said you could drink water or make your own coffee.
You want some of it? I’m not hungry.
Grandma’s waiting for me to eat with her.
Tell her I appreciate this. Will you do that?
The girl went out, and through the window he could see her going along the fence and on into the yellow house.
Late in the afternoon of the third day, without any warning Mary came through the gate out front and up on the porch and into the house. In the living room Dad was sitting in his chair by the window reading the Holt Mercury newspaper. He looked up and she was just standing there.
Well, what in the hell. What are you doing here?
They let me out, she said.
I didn’t hear any car out front. How’d you get here?
What do you mean you walked?
I walked home.
You walked home from the hospital.
They couldn’t bring me right away. They were out on some other call, I guess. And I didn’t think we had to have the expense of that anyhow. It’s going to cost too much as it is. They told me I had to wait but I didn’t want to. I wanted to get home.
Well, Jesus Christ, Dad said. You were in there because you got too worn out and now you walk home in the hot afternoon clear across town.
It’s not so hot out right now, she said.
What’s wrong with those people, letting you go like this.
They didn’t want to let me go. I just left. I wanted to make you some good supper.
He was staring at her. Well, by God, he said. If you keep this up, I’m going to die right now and not put it off any longer, just to keep you from doing this again.
She came across the room and stood in front of him, small and straight and old, and spoke slowly, directly. Don’t you say that to me. Don’t you say such a evil thing. Don’t you ever say it again. You don’t have any right. Are you hearing me, Dad?
He looked away from her.
I mean it. I won’t have it. You’re going to break my heart yet, you damned old man. I believe you will. But you can’t say something like that. Now what would you like for supper? I don’t remember what we even have in this house for sure.
I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to me.
I want to ﬁx you something nice.
She bent forward and kissed him on the head and wrapped her arm around his shoulders and raised up his old age- spotted hand affectionately and held it to her cheek for a long time.
I’m going out to the kitchen, she said. It seems like I was gone for three weeks instead of three days.
After supper, after she had washed the dishes and had put Dad to bed, she called Lorraine in Denver. I think it’s time to come home now, dear. If you can.
Is Daddy worse?
Yes. I wasn’t going to tell you yet.
Tell me what?
The doctor said he only has about a month more.
Mom, when did you ﬁnd this out?
Why didn’t you call me?
Oh honey, I’m trying to get used to it myself. I can’t talk about it yet. She started to cry.
I was in the hospital too, she said. You might as well know that too.
What’s this now?
They took me to the hospital a few days ago.
Why? What was wrong?
I was just too worn down, they said. I fainted on the floor, right here in the living room.
Jesus, Mom, are you okay?
Yes, I am. But I’d appreciate it if you could arrange to help out here a little. I had Berta May come over, but that’s not right. You’re our daughter.
I’ll be there as soon as I can. I’ll have to tell them at the office. But I’ll be there.
That’ll be good. Now I didn’t ask you— are you all right yourself, dear?
He’s all right. Richard doesn’t change.
I know. It doesn’t matter. I’ll be there as soon as I can.
The next day Lorraine drove into Holt on Highway 34 after the sun had already gone down and the blue street lamps had come on at the corners. It was all familiar to her. She turned north off the highway and drove along past the quiet night- lighted houses set back behind the front yards, some of the yards bare of trees or bushes next to vacant lots ﬁlled with weeds— tall sunﬂowers and redroot and pigweed— and then there was Berta May’s house which had been there when she was a child, and then their own white house. She got out and went up to the porch, a pretty woman in her mid- fifties with dark hair. The air was cool and smelled fresh of the country in the evening out on the high plains.
In the house Dad was already in bed and she went with her mother back to the bedroom.
Is he asleep already? It’s only eight thirty.
I don’t know if he’s actually sleeping. He goes to bed early. He always did. You know how he does.
They stood in the doorway. He was lying in the bed with the window open and the sheet drawn over him. He opened his eyes. Is that my daughter? he said.
It’s me, Daddy.
Come over here so I can see you.
She crossed the room and sat down on the bed and kissed him. Mary went out so he could have Lorraine to himself. Dad stared up at her for a long time. Lorraine’s eyes were wet and she took one of his Kleenexes and wiped at her eyes and cheeks.
Yeah. Ain’t it the goddamn hell.
She took his hand and held it. Are you in a lot of pain?
No. Not now.
You don’t have any pain?
I’m taking things for it. Otherwise I would. I was before. Well, you look good, he said.
How was your drive?
Okay. A lot of trafﬁc but it was all going the other way, to the mountains.
They let you off to come here.
They’d better, she said.
Yeah. He smiled. That’s right.
Can you sleep now, Daddy?
I can still sleep, that’s one thing. As long as Mom’s here. I didn’t sleep much when she was gone. They had her to the hospital. Did she tell you?
She told me.
She walked home. Did she tell you that too?
She did. It was hotter than billy hell out there. I’m glad you’ve come. She’s all tired out. I’m afraid she might get down too far. I never wanted her to have to take care of me like this.
I know, Daddy.
Well. All right, then. You’re here now.
You go to sleep. I’ll see you in the morning.
She kissed him again and went out to the kitchen. He looks so bad, Mom.
I know it, honey.
He’s gotten so thin. His color’s so bad.
He won’t eat. He isn’t hungry he says. He just fusses with it.
Sunday morning at the Community Church on Birch Street on the back page of the bulletin there was an announcement about Mary Lewis. It said she had been admitted to the Holt Memorial Hospital and had been released, and it said Dad Lewis was no better. The congregation was asked to continue their prayers for him. There was another brief notice that said Lorraine had come back home.
Excerpted from Benediction by Kent Haruf. Copyright © 2013 by Kent Haruf.
First published 2013 as a Borzoi Book by Alfred A. Knopf Inc., New York and in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto.
First published in Great Britain 2013 by Picador, an imprint of Pan Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited. Pan Macmillan, 20 New Wharf Road, London N1 9RR, Basingstoke and Oxford. Associated companies throughout the world: http://www.panmacmillan.com
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