We don’t see much traffic on this road. The pavement ends about three miles back, and from there it’s just rocks and potholes, like driving on the moon. If you take this stretch any faster than five miles an hour, your kidneys will punish you for it. The people who do come this far—utility workers, census takers—always ask, “Why don’t you fix this road?” And I say, “Because then people will use it. And nobody wants that.”
There are eight houses along this cul-de-sac, with each one spread about a quarter mile apart. Jim, my neighbor to my left, is seventy one, and lost his Julie three years ago. Frank to my right is seventy three and lost his wife to the cancer. I lost my Mary last year to an aneurysm nobody saw coming. Our house seemed too big without her, so I sold it to buy this country place between Jim and Frank. The other houses are hunting cabins and vacation homes, so Jim, Frank and I are the only full-timers. Widowers Row, they call us.
I’m retired, so I’ll go into town maybe twice a month to buy groceries and retrieve my mail. If I need anything between trips, I can get it from my neighbors. Jim is always happy to help and glad for the company. He’ll pop the tab on a cold one as I approach and rest it on the porch rail as an invitation to sit. Frank’s house is a shorter walk but a lot less welcoming, and he’ll remind me a dozen times to return or replace whatever I borrow. Like I wouldn’t know to do that.
My daughter says she worries about me out here, but not enough to visit. Instead, she invites me to come live with her. “What if you get hurt?” she says over the phone. “What if you take a fall?”
“I’m only sixty-seven,” I say.
“It’s not about getting old, Dad,” she says. “It’s about being alone.”
I do wish she’d visit, but if our road gives her husband an excuse not to come, then it is doing God’s work. This road scares people off better than a barbed wire fence. I can sit on my front porch for days on end and not see another living soul. On those rare occasions when a stranger rolls past, I’ll raise my fingers to my eyebrow in a crisp salute. They never take their hands off the wheel and scowl at me like I’m the one shaking them in their car like a pebble in a paint can.
I was passing that day the way I pass most: light breakfast, some news on the satellite TV, and then outside to the porch when the day warmed up. Just up the road I could see a tiny denim speck that was Frank working outside. Frank is six years older than me, but his property is immaculate. Weeds pulled, trees trimmed, lawn like a putting green. Watching him, I decided to cut my grass before it got any worse. Tending this big yard is the only thing I don’t like about this place. Afterword my knees creak and my back hurts, but that’s why God invented the riding mower.
I’d been at it about an hour and was already planning to escape the afternoon sun for some iced tea and a nap. I couldn’t hear anything above the grind of the mower, so Frank was just ten feet from me when I saw him. He has a big nose and grey unibrow that makes him look like a vulture. A stint in the Marines instilled a ramrod posture that sixty-plus years of hard work couldn’t bend. He also starches and irons his clothes every day just to work in his garden.
Now, his hair was mussed and his shirt untucked. He bent forward at the waist and pinned his right forearm against his belly with his left hand. His face was chalky white, and what hair he had left was pasted against his scalp in wet curls. When I killed the engine he just stood there, cringing.
“Something wrong with your arm?”
“My shoulder,” he said. He winced, like just the vibration from his voice box made it worse.
From my backyard, I could just see the outline of Frank’s house through the trees. I wasn’t wearing my glasses, but thought I saw a blurry ladder on its side. It probably took him twenty minutes to stagger down to me. I’ve suffered enough sprains and breaks to know that adrenaline gives you 10 minutes grace before the real pain hits, and then it’s Katy bar the door. I stepped down off the mower and placed a sympathetic hand on his back. Still, I couldn’t help noticing that he wore the same pained expression whenever I asked to borrow a cup of sugar.
“This ever happen before?”
He nodded. “Tried….to shrug it in…” he grunted and then dropped to one knee.
“Wait here,” I said.
I quick stepped back to the house and grabbed my keys. I went around front to start my car, but my heart was pounding so hard that I had to sit a second and catch my bearings. I put the car in gear and drove it through my yard to position the passenger door where Frank was kneeling. When I got out and opened the door for him, he shook his head until I said, “Jim’s got a bum shoulder, too. He’ll know what to do.” I eased him into the bucket seat with his arms still pressed to his belly, but he was so weak with pain that I had to get down on my knees and lift each of his feet by the ankle and place it gently inside the car as he pivoted to face forward.
I took the road at five miles an hour, but even at that speed Frank’s head was snapping around on his neck like a boxer’s speed bag. I felt bad for him, but there was nothing I could do. Driving this road is bad enough with two good shoulders, and if I went any faster, it’d only shake him harder and make things worse.
As we rounded the turn, I could see Jim’s property through the trees. It was hard to miss. There were spinning wind vanes and wooden bird feeders and Amish doo-dads and fountains with cherubs spitting streams of water and a dozen ceramic garden gnomes. You should see this place lit up at Christmas. They can probably see it from space. I used to blame this carnival on his departed wife until I realized that he has to remove and return all this crap every time he mows his lawn. I leaned on the horn as I turned into his driveway.
Jim came bellying out his screen door with a loud squeak and a thwack. He was still chewing as he crossed his porch and didn’t even remove the napkin he had tucked under his chin. He laughed when he saw me and waved me in with both hands, as if to say, come, sit, eat. And I thought: old Jim is nicer than Santa Claus. But then he spotted Frank in the seat beside me, and his expression grew serious. He’d heard me bitch about Frank enough to know that the two of us riding in a car together meant the temperature in Hell had officially dropped below 32 degrees.
I rolled down my window as I pulled to a stop. “Frank’s shoulder’s popped out. Can you set it right?”
“Is it dislocated, or separated?”
“Hell if I know.”
Getting Frank to a standing position was a three-man operation. Jim limped around to the passenger side and tried to help him up, but his back is bunched, and there was nothing to grab that wouldn’t hurt Frank’s shoulder. With my knees on the driver’s seat, I lifted Frank by his belt loops while Jim tugged his shirt collar until he could straighten his legs. When Frank was upright, Jim placed a tentative hand on his shoulder. “You want me to try to set it?”
I saw Frank glance at his shoulder and then turn to look at the road out. He stood there a moment, swaying slightly. On Frank’s face and collar, I saw a fine salty residue of dried sweat. Finally, he closed his eyes and dropped his head. He nodded, once.
Jim snapped the napkin off his collar to show he meant business. He gripped Frank’s wrist and slowly raised his arm away from his body like the crank on a rusty pump. Frank’s face contorted in a red pinch of pain, the way a baby looks when it’s about to wail. Jim lifted his boot and braced it against Frank’s hip.
“Easy now,” he said.
With a hard jerk, he simultaneously pulled and twisted Frank’s wrist. I could tell that single pull threw Frank’s breakers. Frank is German, with legs so white you could read by them at night. But in that moment, with that nose of his, he had the look and color of a cigar store Indian. His eyes rolled back, and his knees buckled slightly, and Jim and I nearly knocked heads as we stepped up to catch him. Jim looked at me with an expression of real panic. “We need to get help,” he said. “Now.”
Just inches from Frank’s face, I could see Jim’s point. The pain was pulling hard at the corners of his mouth, and his eyes were squinted shut so tight that he had popped some of the blood vessels on his face. He had the beginnings of a shiner in both sockets. “Should we call an ambulance?”
“I doubt they’d make it up this road.”
“Let’s drive him to the emergency then.”
“We’ll take my truck,” Jim said.
The seat in Jim’s truck stretches the width of the cab, like a sofa you can drive. We put Jim behind the wheel, with me in the middle and Frank on the passenger side so we could buckle him in. I reached across Frank’s body and grabbed the far door handle to arm bar him against all the bouncing, but it barely helped. We still had two miles of rough road to go and another half mile of dirt after that until we hit pavement. With no radio or conversation, the only sound was the shock absorbers rocking and squeaking like the bedsprings in a Honeymoon Suite.
“How we doin’ there, Frank?”
“Nnf,” he said.
“Hold up,” I said to Jim. When the truck stopped moving, I pivoted on the seat to face Frank. With his healthy shoulder centered in my chest, I scissored my legs around his waist and crossed my ankles on the other side. I wrapped my arms around his chest and clasped my hands under his far armpit. This position was hell on my back and hips, but I thought it might brace him from some of the jostling. I felt strange holding him so close, and he felt it, too. He tilted his head away from me like he was resisting a kiss. When we were moving again, I could hear a high whimper catch in his throat with each hard bounce and shift. Still, my bear hug seemed to absorb the worst of it.
“I need you to say something, Frank,” I said. “Make sure you’re still with us.”
“Unh,” he said.
“No,” Jim said. “He’s right. You need to talk, Frank. Take your mind off it until we can get you fixed.”
Frank hissed through clenched teeth.
“When I found my Mary,” I said, “I picked her up and held her just like this, Frank. I wrapped my arms under her arms, across her chest. Of course, she was a lot smaller than you.”
Frank’s eyes were squinted shut. He had stopped grunting.
“I kept trying to put her back on her feet. Her toes were dragging on the floor, so I’d lower her a bit, to see if she’d take. I was sure that eventually her eyes would flutter open, and then she would look at me and smile like I was the one who was acting strange. I did it over and over, picking her up and lowering her down, as I felt her grow cold against me.”
I got no response.
“I held her like that for twenty minutes, Frank. Even propped her against me as I dialed 911. My shoulders ached, and my arms went numb, but the ambulance found me carrying her up our street to shorten their trip.”
The truck began to gain speed, with the gravel cracking and popping under the tires. Jim reached around me to squeeze Frank’s knee. “Now we’re movin’,” he said, but got no response.
I twisted my neck to speak to Jim. “We’d better hurry,” I said.
“I don’t know,” I said.
We pulled up flush with the emergency room entrance like we worked there. I was uncoiling myself from Frank while Jim huffed and limped around the truck to pull the passenger door open. Someone inside must have seen us struggling, because two medics rushed out with a wheelchair. When I unhooked my ankles, Frank spilled out the door to the waiting arms of the medics. His eyes were closed and his mouth hung open. In the chair, his feet dangled feebly and at weird angles, like the felt legs of a puppet.
As they wheeled him inside, I watched Jim trail behind them on arthritic knees, shouting “ladder” and “shoulder” and “pulse.” He stopped in the lobby to look back at me. “You coming?”
I waved him on. “I’ll park the truck,” I shouted.
With Jim gone, I sat a moment with my eyes closed and swallowed hard against a sudden wave of dizziness and nausea. All of it, the heat and the mowing and the stooping and the lifting and the coiling and the hugging and the talking, it all caught up to me at once. When I opened my eyes, another medic had come outside to catch me lying flat on the truck seat. “You okay?”
“Sure,” I said, and forced a smile. “A little stiff.”
He nodded and rapped his knuckles on the hood of the truck. “Gotta move this,” he said.
“I was…just….” I began, but he had already turned to walk back inside. It took me another minute to stretch under the wheel and put the truck in gear.
We sat in the waiting room for a couple hours with people who were either hurt or waiting for people who were hurt. It was bedlam. There was a guy pressing a wadded handkerchief against his eye, and another who looked just like him dabbing a bloody napkin to his mouth. There was something about the way they wouldn’t look at each other that told me each had hurt the other. There was another guy playing a tiny electronic game with his thumbs. It bleeped and blipped, loudly, and he never looked up once. If the world had ended, he wouldn’t have noticed. A Hispanic woman sat across from us with a half dozen kids going absolutely bonkers. They were crawling on the chairs and playing with the water fountain and pressing all the buttons on the vending machines while their mother stared straight ahead with a distracted, worried expression. She snapped out of it once when she caught Jim offering her a sad smile. “Your youngest reminds me of my great grandson,” he said.
Frank’s doctor was an Iranian of some kind who looked to be younger than Jim’s truck. He carried a clipboard and had a nervous habit of rapidly flicking the button on his pen with his thumbnail. It was like listening to someone accompany your diagnosis on the maracas. He frowned hard when we told him about our attempt to set Frank’s shoulder.
“Are either of you family?” he said, clickety-click-click.
“We’re his—” I started.
“—neighbors…friends,” Jim said.
“Does he have anyone we could contact?”
“Not locally, I don’t think. You’d have to ask him.”
“He’s in no condition to talk,” the Iranian said. “He’s in intensive care…”
Jim wore an expression of such deep concern that I thought he might cry. “Did he have a stroke, Doc?”
“I can’t really say, if you’re not family. It’s a privacy issue. But we’re always concerned when a man his age loses consciousness.” The Iranian smiled at me then. “What about you,” he said. “Are you okay?”
He placed his hand on my shoulder. “I don’t like your color.”
“I’m only sixty-seven,” I said and immediately felt foolish. He invited me to sit up on a gurney while he checked me out, but I said nothing doing. I had a feeling that if I reclined on that wheelie bed, he would have parked me next to Frank for the night, and I was determined to sleep in my house and my bed. I sat in a chair in the waiting room while he timed my pulse and flashed a light in each of my eyes. Jim fetched me a cup of water, and I pretended it helped.
“Can we see Frank?” Jim asked.
“Not at this hour. You should both go home and get some rest.”
“How about tomorrow?”
The doctor stood and checked his clipboard, his thoughts already on whoever came next.
“Call first,” he said. He retreated up the hall and clicked a fast rhythm like he was wearing tap shoes.
I made a big show of standing and stretching and pulling on my coat, but Jim stayed rooted to his seat. I stood there a beat longer to let him follow suit. I loomed over him, shifting impatiently from foot to foot. “You heard the man,” I said finally. “There’s nothing we can do.”
Jim stared at the hall where the doctor disappeared.
“Look, Jim.” I said. “It’s been a long day…”
“I know,” he said. “I just…”
He met my eyes. “I just hate the idea of Frank waking up all alone in there.”
I lifted Jim’s wadded windbreaker and handed it to him. “He does that every day,” I said.
Jim and I climbed into the cab of his truck. He turned the key in the ignition and gripped the gear shift, but a commotion behind us made him shift back into park. We sat in silence with the engine idling while an ambulance tore out of the lot with its siren blaring. We rested a quiet minute longer and listened to the siren fade far in the distance. “It’s a damn good thing you were there to help him,” he said softly.
“He’ll be fine.”
“You probably saved his life.”
“I think we’re both guilty of that.”
Jim is normally a big laugher, but he was quiet now, thoughtful. He dropped his head, like he was reluctant to say what came next. I thought I knew what was coming: That could have been either of us. Instead, he said, “You never told me that. About your wife.”
I waved my hand like I was shooing a fly.
“No,” he said. “I’m your friend. You should have told me.”
“I never had to hug you,” I said.
The trip home seemed to take forever. It was dark as we drove through town, and the harsh light of the street lamps and fast food places stung my eyes. At the last traffic light before the highway, I found myself squinting hard at the bright lights of a car dealership. Jim nodded to the VFW next door. The lot was full. “Wanna grab a quick one?”
I shook my head.
“Aw, c’mon,” he said. “A quick one.”
“Gotta get home,” I said. “Doctor’s orders.”
“I’ll introduce you. They ask about you.”
“I’ll be honest, Jim,” I said wearily. “I’m just not in the humor for people right now.”
Jim shook his head and looked away. But he eased the truck forward when the light turned green.
I tried to keep Jim company as he drove us home, but every time I rested my eyes, my chin touched my chest. I finally gave up and braced my right temple against the cool glass of the passenger side window.
Straight away I dreamed of Mary, as I often do, only this time I was telling her about Frank and the hospital. I described how the doctor looked at me and acted like I was the one who needed help. “I’m only sixty-seven!” I said, while Mary shook her head and clucked her tongue. I was smiling in my sleep, until I felt Jim’s hand shake my shoulder.
“Better wake up,” he said softly. “It gets rough from here.”