Tom Wheeler had much to forgive, but very little time to act or be understood

A Short Story

by Jessica Treadway

THEY WERE ALL SITTING IN THE BACK YARD when Tom Wheeler walked by. “Don’t look now,” Ruthie murmured into her Mademoiselle. “On the waterline.”

They all looked out across the lawn. He had on shorts, a T-shirt, and a white hat with the brim pulled down close around his face. A white towel was bunched at the back of his neck. Even from this distance they could see sweat sliding down his legs.

“He looks just like he did when he used to play tennis.” Susan lifted her sunglasses and then pulled them down again discreetly when Tom Wheeler seemed about to turn her way. But instead he moved ahead slowly, on stiff knees.

“He’s a lot thinner, though. God, he looks like an old man.” Their mother kept watching until Tom Wheeler was out of sight, across the street and farther down the long dirt path covering the water-supply route from the reservoir into town. Between the rows of black raspberries people ran and rode bicycles in the hottest part of the day.

“Who is he?” Susan’s husband wanted to know. Every time he slapped at the mosquitoes lighting on his legs, he missed. The women were laughing at him with their eyes.

“Tom Wheeler.” Ruthie spoke to the pages of the magazine, which was open to an update on penile implants. She held it tilted at an angle so that her mother wouldn’t see. “We used to babysit for them—his kids, I mean. But one summer they just stopped calling.” She

closed the magazine around her finger and turned her gaze across the grass. “I wonder why that was.”

“It was a long time ago,” Susan said.

“But what’s the matter with him?” Her husband pointed at the waterline with his beer can. It was the Fourth of July, and they were waiting for night. Already, early fireworks sounded from other parts of the town, muted blasts and pops that made them imagine a war was being fought at some distant front.

“Cancer,” the women’s mother said. “Last summer he went to the doctor because he thought he’d strained his back on the tennis court. Turned out he had a tumor on his spine, and they gave him a month, at first. Can you imagine? Going in to the doctor for a pulled muscle, and coming out with a month to live?” She clapped vigorously in the air, and when she separated her palms, flakes of mosquito stuck to her skin. The rest of them looked away.

“But he responded to the chemo,” she went on, smoothing lotion across her chest. “He’s been hanging on for a year now. I saw Caroline at the 7-Eleven the other day, and she said they’re planning to bring their girl — Penny, is that her name?—up to Vermont at the end of August. Tom takes pain pills, she said. Long car rides aren’t the greatest, but that seems to be his big goal. Get his daughter to college, then come home to die.”

“Yuck,” Ruthie said. She shivered under the sun.

“’Course, that’s not how Caroline put it,”her mother said. “That’s just my take from the clues.”

Susan had pulled off her glasses and was sucking on one of the ends. She looked hard at her husband, who was licking Dorito dust from his fingers, until he noticed and looked back at her.

“What?” he said.

“I’m just trying to figure out what it would feel like,”Susan said. “Knowing you were going to die. Not knowing when, but watching you get sicker. Weak, like that. Skinny. Like an old man, waiting not to wake up one day.” For a moment her intensity made them all hold their breath. Then she put the glasses on and leaned back in her chaise, and the strain of concentration left her face, as if she’d made a decision that relieved her. “No,” she said, adjusting her body to get comfortable across the plastic weave. “No way could I handle that.”

Her husband squinted, though a cloud was passing overhead. “Well, I’ll do my best,” he told Susan. “Jeez.”

In the house the phone rang. “Dad’ll get it,” their mother said. A few minutes later Susan and Ruthie’s father came out to the yard and stood at the edge of the circle their lawn chairs made by the grill.

“The sun, Dad,” Ruthie said, and he stepped back to draw his shadow away from her face.

“Weird phone call,” he told them, squatting down in the grass. “It was a tape from the town police. Saying a kid from over on Pearl Road is missing, named Steven Lang. Dressed in shorts and a Florida sweatshirt, red high-tops, six years old. They must be dialing all the numbers for a couple of streets square, so people can keep an eye out.”

“Hey, like those advertising tapes,” Susan said. “Where you come home at the end of the day, and you think you have all these messages because the machine takes so long to rewind, and when you play it, all you get is that damn robot voice talking about some time-share out on the Cape.”

“I never heard of the police doing it, though.” Her mother shaded her eyes and peered out across the yard, in case she might spot the missing child picking raspberries. “What a great idea. I hope he’s okay.” She looked beyond her husband’s shoulder until a wasp flittered near her hair. When she was finished swatting, she tapped her husband’s hand, so he would know she was talking to him, and said, “We’re waiting for Tom Wheeler to come back down the line.”

He rubbed his eyebrows and stared ahead into his memory. “Hey, whatever happened to them?" he asked his daughters. “One of you used to be over there every Saturday night.”

Susan spit back into her glass an ice cube that turned out to be too big. “I guess we fell out of touch,” she said.

TOM WHEELER WAS AMAZED AT THE WORLD. With every step he could smell the dry dirt his shoe displaced and sent spreading into the air. He tried, by stopping suddenly a few times, to locate the exact point at which the particles became invisible as they rose from his feet; but they dissolved slyly against his blond shins, as if beating him at a race.

As he moved forward on the path, he was aware of the bugs flying around his face, but by the time he got his hand up to shoo them, they seemed to have either bitten him or flown ahead. The green around him, and the brown under his heels, were sharp one moment and then indistinct, flickery, the next. Dying, or at least his dying, was like that: like driving a car over a hill road, losing a radio signal in the high rock. The way a song came clear at the crest and then passed in and out of static as the car moved up and down through the gray: it was like that. Except that a radio could be fiddled with—turned tip in volume, or switched off. Tom had no controls. And when his senses were working, they often came in too strong— he heard things people meant to be secret, or saw details no one else could discern.

He walked slowly, because his legs were sore at the hips and because he was afraid that if he moved too fast he wouldn’t notice something he couldn’t afford to miss, like a car coming down one of the crossroads, or a kid speeding by on a bike. Three joggers passed him on the waterline, two women and a man; the women did not even look up, and the man turned his face to spit on the other side of the bushes as Tom hurried to get out of his way.

He stopped again by a thick-berried branch. Was he invisible? He ate some of the berries straight off the stems—no point in waiting to wash them, that was a plus. They tasted dusty until he bit in, but the juice was sweet without rinse. He was proud of the care he took to save himself from the thorns.

He turned to watch the joggers receding, their bodies bobbing toward Fairview Drive. He could not believe that they hadn’t seen him, but silent intersections didn’t surprise him anymore. A year ago, if he had passed the same man going at the same speed, they would have raised their hands above their heads in a high slap as their courses crossed. Now people moved by him without acknowledging that he was there. It was as if they didn’t trust him, because he knew something they could not.

It happened, sometimes, even at home—the other night his daughter had come into the living room to turn on the TV, and Tom, waking from a nap, had to speak up to avoid being sat on. The rest of the family had laughed when he told them about it, but Penny’s eyes had turned nervous since then. And his son, Matt, trying to escape admitting what it summoned in all of them, poked Penny and said, “It’s not like he’s history yet.” Tom had seen in Matt’s face then the most damaging kind of regret, shock at the cruelty that had come from his own tongue. The wound to Tom’s soul was not as deep as what he felt for Matt at the same moment—forgiveness, and the knowledge that he would be gone long before Matt ever understood it had been granted. That was what being a father meant, and Tom knew that this, if nothing else, would survive the subversion of his flesh.

Before he left on his walk today, he felt the waiting in Caroline, too. She was sitting in the kitchen, eating ice cream and reading a book. “Why don’t you take that outside?” he suggested. “That sun is too nice to be wasted.” She didn’t answer, but he could sense guilt and irritation in her sigh. And he knew what she was thinking, the truth she would never have said out loud but which they both heard in her silence: I don’t have to hoard anything. When he left, Penny and Matt were fighting over the television’s remote control.

He moved away from the bushes and came in a few steps to the brook before Pearl Road. Every time he approached the brook, and passed above it, he listened to the water rushing over rocks. Even on winter days, when the ground was frozen and the water’s path was softened, narrowed by snow, he could hear the small sounds of movement, a wordless whisper, if he stopped walking and the wind was calm. Today the sound was louder than usual, because something was in the brook, something besides stone and silt, causing the flow to rise and splash over its square gray bulk.

A refrigerator was in the stream.

Someone had rolled it end over end down the shallow bank; behind it, through the trees, he could see the trail of drag marks through a back yard on Herber Avenue. The freezer section was open, its handle stuck in the mud. But the refrigerator itself was closed, and a sucking noise ran through the rubber lip. “Whirlpool” shimmered in silver at the surface.

Tom took a slippery step off the path, into the grass, and grabbed a raspberry branch by accident as he lost his foothold. Thorns stabbed at his palms and he swore, stumbling. Then his skin turned cold, not from the wetness in his shoes but at the sight of a piece of cloth, the end of a small shirttail, trapped in the jamb of the door. On the other side of the refrigerator, he now saw, a child’s bicycle lay against the stream bank, its spokes revolving lazily under the humid breeze.

Tom pitched toward the door and pulled at the handle, trying to find some leverage on the wet rocks, but his shoes gave up their grip and he slid down into the stream. The sucking sound increased along the rubber seal. The door sat high, at an angle away from him, and he had to reach across the slick flank to press upward with the useless muscles at the underside of his arms. They felt like twine, not taut but twangy, and his legs ached at the ankles from being twisted by a body too weak for its weight. As he pressed, his eyes lifted to ground level, where he envisioned shoes passing, pausing, and plunging in to offer their help. But it was only a vision; no one walked by.

Where were the joggers? Why weren’t the ones who had ignored him coming back on their return trip? And another question, pounding in his temples while the sweat itched and stung at the inside of his lids: why hadn’t they seen, as they went by the water, the refrigerator, the bicycle, the fabric wedged in the giant door?

The sky above him was silent, and dust lay on the pathway, waiting to be disturbed. But no one approached. He was alone with water and death. He kicked at the door hinge, heaved again at the handle, shouted, and felt it give. His final strength pried it open; he crawled up and shoved his body into the opening, so that the door couldn’t swung shut again.

He took a deep breath, which stalled in his chest when he saw the boy.

The boy had fallen with the dislodging of the door to the refrigerator’s back wall, his head curled forward and his fingers tucked under his chin. The chamber smelled sour, like bad milk, and a gagging noise rose in Tom’s throat as he reached forward to touch the boy. His fingers jumped at contact with the warm skin of the small arms, and he realized he had expected it to be chilled. He pulled the body out and, without realizing at first what it was, felt the heart vibrating slowly beneath the red shirt, on which he saw an island, blue water, and sand.

The boy’s head fell limp on his shoulder, and when Tom moved to step out of the brook, he slammed the huge door back dow n toward the refrigerator’s body. The force made him fall to his knees against the wet stones, but still he held the boy. Using his free hand to help himself up the bank by gripping grass, and then pushing himself up to sit on the level ground, he laid the boy back, with the island facing the sky. Again, before tilting the head and breathing into the slack red mouth, he looked down the trail and saw emptiness at both ends. The path stretched ahead green into curves he had memorized but couldn’t, from here, see.

He exhaled into the boy, breath and sound he couldn’t control, watching the chest rise under his own pale hand. After a minute the boy’s knees rose, bringing his feet in close to his body, and he coughed. Tom held the back of the boy’s head up then, and as the boy gasped his cheeks lost their bluish cast and his eyes settled into seeing, focusing on Tom’s face. He started to cry, until Tom put his hand against the boy’s forehead and gave it a gentle press. Tom wanted to smite at him, but caught himself in time; lately, when he smiled at his children, or even at Caroline, they winced in returning the gesture, and when he went to the mirror he understood why. The flesh of his face was like loose wax, shiny over high bones, and his teeth looked dark against the transparency of his lips. But the boy, who was closer than Tom’s family got now, didn’t seem frightened; and Tom kept his own shadow circling the boy’s head until he told Tom he wanted to sit up.

“What happened?” Tom asked him, the words squeezing through his chest. He felt the back of his shorts turning to mud as the water absorbed the dirt they were sitting in. He knew they would have to move on as soon as his breath returned—the boy’s skin didn’t look right yet, and his chest still made jerky shivers, like a dreaming dog. “What’s your name?” Tom said.

The boy hugged himself around the middle. “Steven Theodore Lang,”he said quietly, biting into his knee. Then he looked up, and Tom saw confession in his eyes. “I’m not allowed on the waterline, but I heard my mother say a dying guy was out here sometimes. Me and Eric Koone saw somebody dumping that fridge here last night, and it looked like a good place for a dying guy to hide.” He coughed again, and Tom felt the violent shaking in his own lungs.

“So I just came down to look while my mother was at the 7-Eleven, but I couldn’t see over the edge. I climbed up and fell on something, and I grabbed the door by accident, and it knocked me inside.” Steven’s chest puckered in spasm at the memory. The word mother had drowned in his throat. “I couldn’t push it back open. Everything was black, and nobody could hear me.” Then his breath shuddered into calm, the fear left his eyes, and the smile he turned up at Tom was like nothing Tom had ever seen before on a child’s face, like nothing he had ever felt in his wife’s touch, or dared to look for in the part of himself he had only come to recognize in the past year. As he leaned forward to hear the rest of what the boy said, he was aware of a rise under his rib cage, and he remembered with a shock stronger than terror that this sensation was called hope.

“Do you want to know what I was dreaming?”

A chill bit Tom’s neck; the towel he had wrapped there at the start of his walk was sopping with sweat and brook water, and he felt it slip on his skin.

“Wait here,” he said to Steven, before his lust to know could betray him.

He made a pillow of the towel at the edge of the path. The numbness in his arms told him they wouldn’t bear the boy’s w eight, and there was no one, no one, near them.

HE WALKED AS FAST AS HIS FRAME WORLD CARry him, brushing by berry branches, breathing in bugs. He strained his eyes looking ahead for the people who’d passed him earlier, and for the first time he remembered, like an old geometry theorem he had learned weakly long ago, that a person traveling in one direction could reach his original place by mak-

ing a circle instead of returning the way he had come.

When he drew in sight of Fairview Drive, he paused, praying for breath, and before him he could see members of the Bell family, still sitting in their yard. They looked up briefly at the sound of a skyrocket, but only at each other, and not beyond. When he had passed by them earlier, he had waved, but they didn’t see him and he felt silly holding his hand up in the air, waiting for them to notice, so he had turned his eyes back to the path and pretended to study the dirt.

He used to drive Ruthie and Susan Bell back to this house after babysitting. He remembered the day he had come home after a tennis game at the Gibsons’—Caroline hung around to help sweep the court—and found one of the girls, he couldn’t remember which, touching herself in the bathroom. Matt and Penny were playing outside, and Tom assumed that the babysitter was with them, kicking open the door with a clay-dusted sock, taking his sweaty shirt off over his head as he moved by instinct toward the shower faucet, he discovered her suddenly. She was sitting on the toilet-seat cover with her shorts down when he turned and saw her, and she sucked in her breath with a shriek, jumped up, yanked at the zipper, and stumbled down the stairs and outside, where (he watched her from the second-story window, after recovering from his own fright) she sprinted up the street and around the corner, toward home. A few days later Caroline told him that the Bell sisters weren’t working as babysitters anymore. “She just said something about boyfriends,” Caroline said. “I suppose it had to happen sometime.”

As he approached their circle, he tried in the instant before he called out to imagine what they would see. One of the girls lay on her stomach, with her hair hanging above a magazine; the other reclined under dark glasses, though the sun was behind the trees. Their mother was losing part of a cheeseburger down the front of her bathing suit, and the two men were trying to tune in the Red Sox more clearly.

Coming closer, Tom realized that the girl lying on her back was the one he had surprised in the bathroom seven years ago. He wanted to smile at her, and show that all was forgiven, even funny, in the face of what they fought now. He was opening his mouth to let air in, to tell them what was needed, when he heard her sister mumble over the magazine.

“Don’t look now,” she said, in a voice he knew she believed he wouldn’t hear through meat smoke and the sound of explosion in a far sky. “He’s coming.”