It was a hot summer, humid. Flowers wilted soon after they bloomed, and your underwear stuck to you by mid-morning.
Steve was thirty-five. He began that summer in the air conditioned cool of a hospital room. Before his knee replacement surgery, he’d never taken a pain med. But, he was discharged with a prescription for oxycodone and needed it daily for the pain. The doctor told him it would be two months before he could go back to his job as a police officer. Towards the end of that time, a click emerged on the outside of his repaired knee, and a second procedure was needed, which delayed things for an additional month. By then, it was too late: he was hooked. He couldn’t manage without it.
The ten-year-old boy who lived two houses down the street from Steve was named Ben. His father had just begun an extended deployment to the Middle East, so his mother had moved the two of them to her hometown after the school year to be near her family until his father returned.
They rented the little house from one of his mother’s uncles. Ben missed his dad and his old friends. He spent most of his time during those summer months in a tangle of shrubs back next to the alley creating war scenes with his army men.
An old woman, Edna, lived between Steve and Ben, but across the alley behind their houses. On those summer evenings, she sat out in her backyard in her housedress as the light fell stroking her cat on her lap and listening to the cicadas and crickets. She’d lived alone there since her husband had died twenty years earlier; she’d just turned eighty-two. She shuffled more than walked and sometimes used a cane. Small and slight, she wore her short, white hair like a cap. For breakfast, she had a soft-boiled egg. For lunch, a tuna-fish sandwich. Soup and crackers for dinner. During the day, she watched true crime shows on television while a rotating floor fan blew hot air across her.
One morning in late August, Ben was hidden in the bushes with his army men and watched Edna struggle to pull her garbage cans from the side of her garage into the alley. It took her a long time. At one point, she stumbled and almost fell. Finally, she managed to arrange the cans in the gravel for pick-up and shuffle back through her gate, slamming it.
Ben checked often during the day to see if the trash collectors had come by. About four o’clock, he found the cans behind Edna’s garage empty. He opened her gate and slid them in where she’d taken them from that morning. As he was leaving, he heard a voice say, “Thanks.”
He looked beyond the cans and saw Edna sitting in a tulip-backed chair a dozen feet away in the shade of a tall tree holding her cat on her lap. He nodded and left.
The leaves changed early that year. By mid-September, dew at dawn stood the grass straight.
Steve tracked down an old buddy he’d played football with in high school who’d become a doctor and fixed a couple of tickets for him in exchange for a prescription for oxycodone. He took just enough to keep the craving in check. He was still in some discomfort with his knee, so he justified it in that manner, too. When he returned to work in October, he was put on station duty because he wouldn’t have full mobility for a number of months. At home, he played online poker, microwaved his meals, and listened to audio books with the lights turned off. He thought about getting a dog for companionship, but never did anything about it.
Edna stumbled upon her old knitting bag when she took down some blankets from the hall closet for the colder weather. She spent time finishing a scarf she’d forgotten about that was in the bag. She got so that she could knit and watch her shows at the same time. It only took her a few weeks to finish the scarf and a pair of socks. Before Halloween, she’d also completed a sweater for herself and a vest for her cat. They wore those sitting out in the backyard in the evenings, which began earlier and earlier as the days shortened.
Fall meant football for Ben, so when he wasn’t at school or playing with his army men, he was watching football on television, reading about it, or tossing and kicking a football in front of his
house. It was a love that he and his dad shared. Ben often thought of him while he played with the ball. He would toss it up in the air and out in front of him on the sidewalk, then run and try to catch it, imagining his dad throwing it to him like he used to. Or, he’d set the ball on a tee and kick it, picturing the way his dad had stood down the sidewalk at their old house holding his arms up like goal posts for Ben to aim for.
On a cold, early November afternoon of wan, gray light, Steve stood in his front yard raking leaves while Ben played with his football. He watched the boy toss and kick it in his direction. As he did, Ben’s mouth sometimes moved in silent narration or his fist pumped in celebration after a good catch or kick.
One of Ben’s kicks bounced sideways onto the grass and next to the pile of leaves Steve was raking. He picked up the ball as Ben approached.
Ben had seen the big man in his police uniform. He said, “Sorry.”
“No problem.” Steve regarded the waifish boy with his shock of curly, brown hair squinting at him with uncertainty. “Your dad not around to play with you?”
Steve nodded and said, “I used to play football. Well, a long time ago now.” He gestured down the sidewalk with the ball. “Run. I’ll throw it to you.”
Ben’s eyes widened and he scampered down the sidewalk. Steve lobbed him the ball. The boy stretched his arms out, the ball hit his hands, and dropped to the pavement. He picked it up and looked back at Steve.
“Want to try again?” Steve asked.
Ben grinned and said, “Sure.”
The first real snow didn’t come until a few weeks before Christmas. Then it fell in earnest, drifted under eaves, exhaust-stained against curbs.
Ben built a couple of snowmen and a snow fort, but grew too cold with both, so spent most of his time indoors. He moved his army men scenes to his bedroom and re-read lots of old comic books from his dad’s collection. He made a model of a Navy ship that resembled the carrier his dad was on and centered it on his bureau when he finished. He finally made a friend at school, but she moved away several weeks later. He helped his mom paint the living room. On Christmas day, they were able to Skype with his dad; he cried afterwards.
Edna didn’t trust herself to drive on the winter roads, so had her groceries delivered during those months and took a taxi to her doctors’ appointments or the pharmacy. They were the only places she went. Aside from knitting and her shows, she played some solitaire. She fiddled over word searches and easy crosswords. She started a jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table that was largely
left untouched. Most nights, she made a fire with an artificial log in the family room fireplace. She sat in her husband’s old easy chair, rubbing her palms over the bare patches he’d worn into
its arms. She watched the flames or looked out the window across the alley at the back of Steve’s house, the tops of trees over it, the stretch of streetlamps in the distance.
During those cold months, Steve had to make longer and longer drives to new pharmacies in different towns to get his oxycodone scripts filled. He avoided looking in the mirror. More and more, he sat slumped in the dark after work without listening to his audio books. He finally decided to open the oxycodone capsules and begin pouring out incrementally increasing amounts of the crystals before swallowing them. He took down the photographs of his wife and the two of them together and stored those away in a cardboard box in the basement. He tried meditation, but couldn’t concentrate on it.
Sitting there in front of her fire, Edna watched Steve in his kitchen each evening take a box out of his freezer, place it in his microwave, and then lean against the counter with his arms folded and his head bent while it heated. When it was finished, he lifted it out and usually ate right there at the counter with his back turned away from her. Over the years, she’d noticed that his hair had thinned. For a long time, she’d also noticed his wife driving away to work in the morning in her car she kept parked behind their house along the edge of the alley. Edna remembered the winter morning a year or so earlier when she’d watched his wife carry a suitcase
to the car, crying. After she drove away, Edna never saw her again. Steve had begun parking his own car there shortly after she left.
On a snowy afternoon in late February, Edna prepared a double batch of pot roast. She included red potatoes, onions, carrots, and a thick broth. She timed it so that it would be finished just before five o’clock. When it was, she ladled half of it into a large Tupperware container, secured its lid, and put it in a paper bag. She put her husband’s old hunting coat over her housedress and carried the bag out into the snow in her backyard. She crossed the alley, opened Steve’s gate, brought the bag up to the top step below his back door, and set it there under the porch light.
When she got home, she waited in her husband’s easy chair, but didn’t start a fire. Twenty minutes or so later, she saw Steve pull into his space at the edge of the alley and hurry through the gate in the swirling snow to his back door. She watched him find the bag, lift it, sniff inside it, and look around. His gaze paused in her direction, but she knew he couldn’t see her through the snow and gathering darkness.
By late March, all the snow had melted and first buds dotted tree branches. The creek across the road at the end of the alley swelled to its banks.
Ben sometimes poked along that creek looking for pollywogs. He rode his bike aimlessly through the neighborhood. He moved his army men back out to his spot in the shrubs. His mom
planted herbs, tomatoes, and butter lettuce in big clay pots behind the house that he stopped to water each afternoon. He liked the lengthening daylight; it made him feel hopeful somehow.
Edna started her annual spring cleaning with the kitchen, scrubbing everything down, throwing things away. She made her way gradually through the rest of the house. In the evenings, she resumed sitting in the backyard with her cat in her tulip-backed chair. Familiar things dusted themselves off and pleased her: the smell of newly mowed grass, the sound of the ice cream truck’s jingle, birds perching again on telephone wires.
With the nicer weather, Steve urged himself to be outside and more productive. Gradually, he pushed back the time he took his first pill each morning. He managed short walks out along the river on weekends. He began doing sit-ups after work in the backyard. He started using the bar-b-que there to make dinner, listening to music on the radio as he did. He hung a hummingbird feeder outside his kitchen window.
A perfect Saturday morning arrived in mid-April that you could taste on your tongue before you were fully awake. Ben was in the bushes early with his army men building a new scene: a rescue mission. Steve decided to fix the latch on the back gate along the alley. Edna had a sudden hankering for succotash; the grocery store finally had fresh corn again, so she put on a sweater, got her purse, and used her cane to hobble out into the garage to drive there and get some.
Ben looked up when he heard the groan of Edna’s garage door. Steve looked over, too. They both saw the small, old woman emerge behind her car there when the door was lifted. They both saw her fiddle with the clasp on her purse, then collapse onto the gravel. She dropped like a rock; her cane and purse landed with her.
Steve was out to her side first, with Ben just behind him. Steve put his fingertips to the side of her throat, then his ear over her mouth. He put one hand over his other on Linda’s chest and began to thrust with the heel of the first. He turned to the boy and said, “Go call 911.”
Ben ran off, blinking. His mother had gone over to his grandmother’s, so the house was empty as he made the call. The hospital was only a few blocks away, just up the street from his school. By the time he got back to the alley, sirens were already approaching. Ben stood very still with his hands at his sides watching Steve count to himself as he thrust, pausing only to pinch Edna’s nose and blow twice into her mouth.
The ambulance screamed up the alley a couple of minutes later, and paramedics took over. Steve seemed to know them all and explained things to the one who appeared to be in charge. Then he stood next to Ben until they had Edna loaded on a stretcher and lifted into the ambulance.
“Okay if I ride in back with her?” Steve asked.
The paramedic he’d been talking with nodded, and he climbed up inside.
“Here,” Ben said. He lifted Edna’s purse and cane from where they lay and handed them to Steve. Their eyes met. The ambulance doors slammed shut; gravel sprayed as it roared off.
Ben went back to his house, left his mom a note, and taped in on the refrigerator beside a photograph of his dad. He paused, touching the photo, then rode his bike down to the hospital emergency department. Steve was the only person in the waiting room, sitting against the wall on a padded bench. They looked at each other. Ben walked over and sat down next to him. They were quiet for several moments until Ben said, “Do you think she’ll be okay?”
Steve looked down at the boy, raised his eyebrows, made a small shrug. “I hope so.”
Ben nodded. “I think you may have saved her life. I think you might have.”
A small smile creased the big man’s face. “So, what do you hear from your dad?”
Ben’s eyes brightened. “He’s coming home next month.”
Steve’s smile broadened. He made a fist and extended it towards the boy. Ben made a fist himself and bumped it. Then they were quiet again staring straight ahead towards the wide double doors leading into the examining hallway. There was a television mounted high in a corner that was on, but muted. Low voices occasionally came from behind a glass window. Once in a while, a dog barked somewhere nearby. It was warm in the room.
Perhaps twenty minutes passed before Ben said, “I sure hope she’s all right.”
Steve heard a sound like a small cough escape the boy, then felt the cushion tremble before realizing that he had begun to cry. He reached over and put his arm around Ben’s shoulders. The boy leaned into him. They sat like that as the morning’s soft light streamed through the windows, as the day continued to unfold, as the new season began.
William Cass has had more than a hundred short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines and anthologies such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and Nottingham Review. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.
If you enjoyed A Time for Every Purpose, leave a comment and let William know.
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