Dallas Dave

Sarah opened the kitchen door and stepped down onto the concrete slab of the screened in porch on the side of the house.  She reached up and pulled down the 2 ½ gallon stainless steel milk bucket that they had bought years ago and headed off down the hill toward the barn.  She crossed the washboard dirt road and crawled through the barbed wire fence and went into the barn.  She put some feed in the box, got the cow situated and sat down on the little three- legged stool.  She smiled as she thought about Russ’ entrepreneurial ventures.  That was back in the time that Russ was going through a spell of get rich quick schemes, this particular one being selling milk to the Pet Dairy.  Sarah remembered how excited Russ had been about the whole idea; he expanded the milking cows from one to four.  He would milk two and their son Clyde would milk two.  It was a lot of work but Russ expected to collect some big dividends.  Of course the cows had to be milked in the morning and evening; everything went along well for about a month.  In addition to the two two and a half gallon stainless steel buckets for milking Pet required that they purchase a 25 gallon stainless steel tank.  When they accumulated enough milk to make it worthwhile they would pour all of their milk into the tank, put the cover on it and set it in a washtub full of ice.  Then they would leave it on the side of the road in front of the barn and the Pet milk truck would come and pick it up, the driver carrying the heavy tank up the ladder and pouring it into the truck. Things were great for a month and Russ was flirting with the idea of buying a couple more cows, but it all came crashing down when the Pet tanker turned over up above High Shoals and Russ lost all his milk he had put out.  As the saying goes Russ got pretty “out of heart” about that and before you could say Rhode Island Reds the family was back to two milk cows and Russ was on to another venture. 

The chicken idea worked better; there were two cotton mills close by, one in High Shoals and one in Harden.  Russ and Sarah had heard that there was a demand for butter and eggs on the mill hills.  Both mills were situated on the South Fork River, so the land rose at a pretty good clip away from the river bank. It was customary for the mill owners to provide small rental houses for their workers at a reduced rate, and this elevated area was where they built them—thus the term “mill hill.”  Russ had a chicken house that he had built years before, so all he had to do was buy the chickens.  “Rhode Island Reds” were known to be good layers; additionally, the two cows provided the milk for the butter. They delivered the butter and eggs to the mill hands and soon had a thriving cottage industry; the revenue derived from that venture combined with what the two of them made from working in the cotton mill allowed them to pay off the small loan they had taken out to build their new house. 

All that had been over twenty years in the past.  Sarah was thinking about all of this as she maneuvered and got the little stool situated.  First she pulled the jar of Vaseline from her apron and applied some to the cow’s teats.

“They sure can get crusty this time of year,” she said out loud as she massaged the Vaseline onto the teats.  Once she started sending the streams of milk into the bucket her mind drifted back to Russ.  After the family had moved into the new house Russ had taken a job up in Lincolnton at Seth Lumber Company hacking lumber, which amounted to stacking it vertically to ensure proper drying.  He had impressed his boss with his math skills and his ability to get along with others and within a year he was offered the job of salesman and estimator.  That was what he was doing when he got sick; Sarah had some pangs of guilt as she remembered how she had half teasingly told Russ that the salesman job had “just ruined him.”  What she was talking about was that Russ had always been a big strong man, but the work in the lumber yard kept him trim; however, after ten years of riding around being a salesman he had accumulated a big bay window.  It wasn’t that he had lost much strength, it was just that he had gained so much weight. She recalled that he had grinned sheepishly and said “I’ll work on it’” when she had mentioned it.  That conversation was several years old, long before the problem.

The ”problem” began in late winter of this year.  Russ had started drinking a lot; he would be drunk almost every day when he got home, and he didn’t arrive late so Sarah knew that he was drinking at work. 

“I bet it is that carpenter, that Roy Bradley that he is buddying around with,” she had told her sister Ida on the phone.  Ida was a receptive ear, for she had her own problems with a drunkard husband, one that was much worse than Russ.  The drinking issue had just about worried Sarah to death but what happened next made Sarah forget all about any drinking problem.  Every day when Russ would get home, drunk or sober, he would eat supper and within an hour he would be in the bathroom throwing up.  This went on for a week and then Russ went to the local doctor in Dallas, Dr. Thomas A. Will.  Dr. Will had taken some blood, performed some tests, and had placed a call to U.N.C. hospital in Chapel Hill to seek the advice of a specialist.  The specialist had listened patiently and then had set up an appointment for Russ to come to Chapel Hill the following week.  It was always when Sarah was alone that she started remembering the sad events of the last several months—– the trip to Chapel Hill, the examination by the specialist, and the ensuing exploratory surgery.  It was at about this point in her dolorous recollections that she would start crying.  She remembered the scene in the hospital room the day after the operation when the two surgeons broke the bad news; “It’s pancreatic cancer and like almost always it has spread.  We can’t give you any realistic hope, although research is always continuing,” they had told them.  Sarah started crying louder as she recalled how Russ had cried for a little while and said “I had a feeling it was something  like that.”   She was finishing up the milking when she realized that she was hearing someone else cry.  She looked out toward the dusty road and saw little Richie standing just inside the barn. 

“What’s wrong momma,” he blubbered when he saw her looking at him.

“Oh nothing honey,” she said.  “You go on back to the house and I’ll be there in a minute.”  After he left Sarah somewhat composed herself a bit.  “It’s gettin’ close, real close,” she said out loud.  “The boy needs to be taken over there tomorrow if he is going to see his daddy alive.”  She remembered that Richie had a dental appointment at 2 the next afternoon and figgered that she would get her oldest, Jane, who was a nurse at the hospital where Russ was, to pick him up and take him to the dentist and then bring him by the hospital room.  Sarah felt a little better after making that decision and wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and headed to the house.

The next morning Sarah got Richie up early so she could drop him off at Jane’s house on her way to the hospital.  Going to the hospital had become her routine, especially for the last three months; things had deteriorated to the point that Russ would have to have at least a pint of blood every few days, sometimes two.  Sarah recalled how long the last transfusion had lasted; it took the nurse a long time to find a workable vein, most of them already being collapsed.  That had been three days prior, just before Russ had the stroke.  Russ had always been a cigar smoker, Havatampa Nugggets.  He would go into the cigar box in his bedroom and stick four or five in his shirt pocket.  He collected the cigar boxes to keep his tax information in.  But since he had gone into the hospital he had switched off to Winston cigarettes; he had asked Sarah to light one for him and after she handed it to him and he put it into his mouth she had looked away for a minute.  When she had looked back at Russ he was trying to talk and the cigarette had fallen out of his mouth; the left side of his mouth was working uncontrollably.  Sarah had hollered and a nurse came running in and settled her down, then the nurse went down the hall and came back with a doctor.  They asked Sarah to go outside in the hall while the doctor looked Russ over;  in about a half hour the doctor came out into the hall and talked to Sarah.

“Your husband has suffered a stroke,” he had told her.  “His being only 49 years old would make this occurrence rather unusual, but considering his extremely weakened condition it is not surprising.”  Then the young doctor had looked at her, had looked at her for at least ten seconds, and then had said “it is time to bring in family if they are local,” and walked down the hall.  Rose and Gail, her teenage daughters who were still at home had come to say goodbye to their daddy the day before.  Since the stroke Russ seemed to be in more pain, so the doctor had increased the morphine drip.   Russ was able to talk, even with the paralysis on the left side, but his words came out slurred, like he had just killed a pint of white liquor. 

“I hope he makes it to this afternoon when Jane brings Richie over,” she thought to herself as she was driving to Jane’s house.  Richie asked, “so I am gonna see daddy this afternoon?”  

“Yes son,” she replied dolorously, hoping that the little boy did not pick up on the hopelessness in her voice.  If he did he didn’t say anything about it and in a few minutes they were on Meadowbrook Lane in Gastonia.  Sarah pulled into the driveway and Jane met them at the kitchen door.  She worked the third shift so she still had on her uniform.  Each morning when her shift was finished she would stop by and see her father before going home. 

“How was he?” Sarah asked and Jane said “about the same.”

“Dr. Will came by and we talked for a while,” Jane said.  “You know, everytime I talk to him and I am feeling so down about daddy he starts telling me about his father who is dying up in Pennsylvania, and I wind up feeling so sorry for him.   At least it takes my mind off our situation for a few minutes,” she said, silently wondering if the doctor did it that way on purpose.  Richie had gone into the den and turned on the television so he did not hear any of the conversation.

“I am going to get some sleep,” Jane said.

“Don’t worry about Richie; as long as you have ice cream in the freezer he will be fine,” Sarah said.  Jane grinned at her mother and assured her that there were two half gallons available.  Then she left her mother and went into her bedroom and Sarah said goodbye to Richie and headed to the hospital.

Jane got out of bed about one o’clock; she had heard Richie rustling around in the kitchen, more than likely assaulting the butter pecan.  She went to the bathroom, performed her toilette, got dressed and went into the den where Richie was watching Heckle and Jeckle on tv.

“Come on Richie, we need to leave to go to the dentist; the appointment is at 2:00,” she said and the little chubby boy turned off the tv and came along.  The two of them went outside to where Jane’s ancient beige Renault waited parked at the top of the hill on Meadowbrook Avenue.  Quite purposely she had been able to park her car on a hill both at the hospital and at home, allowing her to avoid the expense of a new battery.  It worked out fine; she had her spot at home staked out and if she ever went anywhere else she would search strategically for the right spot to park so that she could jump the little car off.   The dentist’s office was not far away, over near the Firestone Mill on Second Avenue.  Dr. Woody had been the Hoffman family dentist for a long time, even when Jane had been small.  He was a handsome man in his fifties who always smelled good.  When the receptionist called Richie’s name Jane went back with Richie; Dr. Woody knew what was going on with Russ and knew the time was close, so he did not make any inquiries when Jane mentioned that they were heading to the hospital after the dental appointment.  While he was getting ready to get Richie checked out he chose to lighten up the atmosphere.

“Jane, I get such a kick of your mother; you know about every time she comes in here for a checkup she brings up the terrible way her teeth look,” he said.  Sarah’s teeth were small, discolored, and worn, material having been placed at several places at the gum line to fill in gaps.  Sarah referred to them as “snags”.  Both Jane and Richie started smiling and Richie emitted a little giggle; both of them had heard and witnessed the telling of this story In the past. 

“You know, she will look up at me from the chair and say ‘Dr. Woody, sometimes I just feel like gettin’ you to pull out all these old snags and fit me with some of those beautiful false teeth,’ she always says.  And I always give her the same advice and tell her Sarah, they are a mighty poor substitute, a mighty poor substitute, and she will think about it a minute and leave it alone until the next appointment,” Dr. Woody said and both of Sarah’s children chuckled at the telling of this familiar story.  After that Jane went into the waiting room and waited for her little brother.  When he came out she paid the receptionist and they went out onto Second Avenue where she had parked on a hill, got in the Renault, turned the key, pushed in the clutch, and when it got rolling let up on the clutch and the little engine sprang to life.   They rode in silence the several blocks to Gaston Memorial Hospital, where she worked in the delivery and their daddy lay dying.  When Jane got situated on her favorite hill Richie looked at her and asked “can we go by the soda shop so I can get a payday?” he asked, and Jane said “yes”, knowing that he had gorged himself on ice cream at her house. 

“He hasn’t gotten this chubby by accident,” she thought to herself, and almost retracted her approval but just didn’t have the heart.  So they got the payday and went on up to the fourth floor to their daddy’s room.  When arrived there was a man in his fifties dressed in overalls standing outside the room; Jane recognized him immediately as Roy Bradley, a good friend of her father’s, and pulled him aside, telling Richie to stay where he was. 

Roy and her daddy had become real good drinking buddies over the last couple of years; additionally, Roy was a good carpenter and Russ would use him a lot on jobs that he bid for Seth Lumber Company.  Last year they had gone deep sea fishing and had caught some six foot long sailfish, an 8×10 photo of the catch gracing the kitchen wall at Russ’ house.  It had even been in the local paper, the Gastonia Gazette, where Jane’s husband Vester worked as a typesetter.  When Jane approached him she could see that he was blubbering and his eyes were swollen from crying.

“Now Roy, I know how you must feel, and I know you have come by here many times, but I need to ask you to either go inside and see daddy or just stay at home.  What you are doing just does not help anything, and it is very upsetting to my mother,” she explained, and Roy seemed to understand and shuffled off toward the elevator.  That was the third time she had talked to Roy and frankly it was getting on her nerves, but she tried to understand, and just hoped that he would not come back anymore.  As Roy disappeared inside the elevator Jane went over to where Richie was and took his hand and walked into Russ’ room.

Sarah was standing just inside the door when the two of them got inside.  She looked at her little boy and managed a grim smile; he was looking at Russ.  It had been a while since Richie had seen him, a while before things had deteriorated so rapidly.  And of course there was the stroke; as Richie looked at his daddy the first thing he noticed was how skinny he had become.  The broad shouldered good looking man that had gone to Chapel Hill months ago was virtually a skeleton.  Russ was sleeping so Sarah went over and touched his shoulder; when his eyes opened she said “Russ, Richie has come to see.”   As Richie looked at Russ he could see how glassy his eyes were.  It reminded him of how Russ’ eyes would be when he would come home from work drunk. 

“Richie has been to the dentist this afternoon, Monk,” Sarah said.  Monk was short for monkey, a little pet name she had for her husband.  To him she was known as Red.  The morphine was working on Russ pretty good, and that combined with the effects of the stroke made for a pretty slurred speech.  Russ looked at his youngest child and slowly his eyes focused; “that’s a good boy, Richie, you go to the dentist,” he managed to get out and then pulled the sheet up on his body and kind of rolled his head around, a wild kind of grin on his face as the drug took him away.  What Richie saw was what looked to him like his daddy being very happy; he figgered that Russ was really glad to see him.  Sarah moved over to Jane’s side and said something in a low tone while Richie stared at his daddy; Russ had drifted back to sleep.

“I think tomorrow would have been too late,” she said to Jane, and Jane whispered back “I expect so.”  Then to Richie Sarah said “Jane is going to take you home; I’ll be along after a while.”  Richie nodded and he and Jane went out the little beige Renault and she took him home. 

His two sisters Gail and Rose were there when Jane dropped him off.  Richie noticed that both of them had swollen eyes, something he had seen a lot of that summer of 1962.  Nothing had been anything like normal since Russ had come back from Chapel Hill.  The garden plot had been plowed up and the rows laid off before Russ had gotten sick and Sarah had garnered the three children still at home and they had put in what they usually planted:  two rows of corn closest to the road, then a row of onions, a row of okra, followed by two rows of tomatoes and a row of cucumbers.  Russ always had two rows of peanuts next, and then a row of cantaloupe and a row of watermelon vines.  The four of them were able to get everything in okay and soon it was growing pretty well.  The hoeing and weeding was the hardest part of having a garden, but with it being summer the kids were at home and whenever necessary Sarah would delay her daily trip to Gaston Memorial and she and the kids would head up to the garden.  Sarah would call every morning at about 8 o’clock to see what kind of a night Russ had experienced and she would walk back to the house to make the call.  She would get the kids up at 6 so they could get a real early start.  Richie remembered how the report from the nurse would affect his momma; if he had not been sick on his stomach she would be smiling when she returned, but if he had she would be sad.  He remembered one day in particular when they were working in the garden; he thought it was in late July.  Sarah had mentioned that she was hopeful of a good report from the nurse as she left to walk to the house.  They had all experienced the positive lift the day before; Sarah had returned from the hospital at the usual time of 4 o’clock and had announced that Russ had been able to eat some ice cream and keep it down.  Richie recalled how excited he had been and had gleefully said “you know, a person could live on ice cream, I bet.”  But when Sarah returned to the garden and they saw how slowly she was walking and the morbid countenance on her face they knew it was not good. 

“What did the nurse say, momma?” Rose had asked.  She was the oldest so she had always sort taken the lead in such conversations.

Sarah looked at her kids and they could see how sad her green eyes were.  “Your daddy ain’t doin’ no good.  He was up sick half the night.”  After that they went back to work but Richie was watching his momma very intently for any indication that she was going to cry.  He hated when she did that and he thought back to when he had stood outside the barn and listened to her weeping while she was milking the cow.

The ice cream episode reminded Richie of another day when Sarah had asked Russ if there were anything that she could fix that he might like to eat.  He had thought a little bit and said “some homemade bread.”  That had been early on in the illness when Russ was not nearly so thin.  Richie remembered how his mother had busied herself with the preparation and within an hour how she had opened the stove door and his daddy, clothed in pajamas and a house coat, leaned over the loaf and inhaled deeply, with a big smile on his face.  As he had watched this Richie had been trying to remember the last time he had seen his daddy smile.  The happy moment continued for a while as they all sat down at the kitchen table and devoured the fresh bread, slathering butter all over it.  Bit it wasn’t a half hour until Russ had gotten up from where he had been sitting in the living room and gone to the bathroom on the back porch and vomited. 

Richie thought back to when Sarah had taken Russ to see Dr. Will.  It had been early on but Russ had lost so much weight that she had to go to Belk Department Store and buy him a shirt and pants.  Richie remembered that he had been out in the yard playing when they returned.  His daddy had gotten out of the car slowly; Richie knew that the last time Sarah had taken Russ to see Dr. Will he had had to go back into the hospital.  Richie asked “will you have to go back into the hospital, daddy?”  Richie would never forget how his daddy had looked at him and tears had welled up in his eyes and he had just gone into the house without saying anything. The answer had come the next morning when Sarah and Russ left early in the morning and only Sarah returned at 4 o’clock.  As his momma was fixing supper Richie overheard her tell Rose something about needing blood. 

That trip to the hospital was followed by two more discharges and homecomings before Russ returned to Gaston Memorial for the last time.  Richie’s summer routine was pretty established.  With Sarah gone everyday and with it getting on into August there was not a lot to do in the garden; additionally, Richie was a pretty lazy little eleven year old.  His days consisted mainly of watching television and riding his bicycle with his buddy Earl.  Earl lived across the creek and was two years older.  Earl had introduced Richie to an interesting diversion; somewhere Earl had gotten hold of a Playboy Magazine and he had shown it to Richie under the bridge that was halfway between their houses.  Earl had also shown him what his Uncle Benny had shown him and soon they were meeting under the bridge and having “races”.  This new endeavor that Richie had been exposed to became a daily habit, but Richie discovered that the magazine was not a necessity; it seemed that his own imagination sufficed.  On one hot August afternoon he had performed four times behind the woodshed; he remembered that he had had to take a nap after that.

Then there was the lawnmower.  It was Richie’s job to cut the grass, a chore he did not look forward to.  The machine was pretty contrary and more than once he had to roll it over to Earl’s house to the little repair shop that Earl’s daddy had to get it worked on.  This was fine with Richie because he knew he couldn’t be bothered with the chore if it were in the shop; however, on more than one occasion Richie had aided the malfunction.  One really hot day, when he was feeling especially lazy, he remembered that there was a particular relationship between gasoline engines and water, so he filled up the tank about ¾ of the way and then added a half cup of water.  Sure enough, it would not start, and in a few minutes he was on his way to the repair shop.  The first time this happened Earl’s daddy, Willy, cleaned out the tank and cautioned Richie to not “leave it out in the rain.”  The second time he had to clean it out he had looked real hard at Richie and said “don’t bring that mower back over here.  I got a good mind to call your momma and would if she wuzzzn’t having such a tough time.” 

That was his summer; bike riding, occasional grass cutting, and more occasional sessions behind the woodshed. Until the day he had gone to the dentist.

Russ had a lot of trouble discerning the difference between dreaming and reality.  Sometimes he felt like he had a grasp on what was going on and then it was like a fog descended on him and he was lost in it.  He was not sure where he was, but he knew that any sense of normalcy was long gone.  Most of the time he recognized the woman who came to see him; he thought it was everyday but he could not be sure, what with the fog and everything.  Sometimes his mind seemed to clear; on one of these occasions he thought he had figgered out that there was a correlation between the shot he would get and the descension into the fog, but he could not be sure.  When the fog filtered in it totally took over; it felt really good as whatever was in that shot coursed through his body and the terrible pain in his gut subsided.  Sometimes he even felt something akin to elation; that was what he was feeling when he was awakened and had seen that little chubby boy.  He thought it had been earlier in the afternoon, if indeed it was afternoon. He remembered that the boy looked sort of familiar, but he could not be sure if he knew him or not.  He did recall that he was told something about a dentist; this confused him because he did not remember anything about having a dental appointment.  In fact, he could not be sure that he even had any teeth anymore; he could not remember the last time he had eaten anything—-ever.  When the boy was there the fog came in, and the ecstasy arrived for a while.  When that had happened he had rolled over in the bed; when his hand touched his other arm he had noticed how skinny it was.  He thought the boy left, along with the girl in the nurse uniform but he was not sure.  A new wave of the fog had arrived and he was back in an old two story house that had never been painted that had a tin roof and a big rock supporting each foundation corner.  More fog.

Richie was alone in the living room when his mother had arrived; then Jane and Rose came in.  His momma looked at him and said “Richie, your daddy is dead; go ahead and cry.”  He said “I guess I was already used to it.” Jane looked real hard at him and said “you will never get used to it.”

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