Sea and Scorpion

Hector Stone wore slick wingtips upon his feet, climbing the worn wooden steps of his old home. He would never have returned of his own will. Scanning the weathered porch, he thought the paint was peeling even more than when he’d left the place for college. His mother had pressured him to scrape it down and put on a new coat back then, but he’d been too busy planning his grand future. She still hasn’t gotten it done, he shook his head knowingly – no surprise there.

She’d had plenty of time to see to the job, too. Since his departure Hector had finished off his under-graduate work, clerked a few years in a law office and put a great dent in law school. He hadn’t quite finished, but already he’d learned enough legal trickery to know he needed to get his mother’s affairs in order. Her health had slipped badly in recent months, and now as the dutiful son, he would move back into the house to take care of things. He didn’t particularly want to, nor did he feel obliged by any warmth; in fact, it was a bit of an imposition. But he thought it the sensible thing to do.

His exit from the house those years ago had felt like an escape from prison. For as long as he could remember, his intellect and prospects had strained at the tiny house nestled in Salem’s oldest neighborhood. Drawing the walls even tighter was his mother: In her eyes he could do no wrong, as long as he did what she expected. Anything else would bring only creeping disaster. After she’d lost her husband, she apparently had determined to keep Hector locked in time at age twelve. His one attempt at courting a bride gave rise to an embarrassing monologue about his inexperience, as the girl uncomfortably shifted her weight from one foot to the other. Saving to buy his own car drove her to clip ads for scooters and other vehicles she considered cute. His interest in law inspired a discussion in her ladies’ club that he should do something about folks who let their yards go to the dandelions, as he was compelled to stand and listen. While he could already feel the back of his neck tingle as he crossed the porch, still he hoped his long absence had divorced him from her maternal anachronism.

He tapped lightly on the screen door in mock politeness before sticking his head inside. “Mother, I’ve arrived!”

“Well, come in! Come on in, Hector!” She sounded like he’d only left that morning, like he had never lived anywhere else in his life.

The voice came from a corner, and Hector found the front room even darker than he remembered. A musty odor filled his head, and he was struck by the amount of fabric decorating the room. Finally he spotted his mother, in a dingy Queen Anne chair, her walker cast off to the side. She could not get around easily anymore, added to her general loss of memory, and the walker served only for trips to the kitchen or bathroom. In her letter inviting Hector to return, in between emphasizing how much he would enjoy again seeing the cradle of his enchanted past, she pointedly mentioned she would have to ask the neighbor child to mail it.

The towering chair made her look yet more frail than she really was, but in spite of that, to Hector she loomed like the smothering overlord of his childhood. In her shrunken state, she had become even less able to fathom his sagacity. But she still aimed to preside from her throne, he thought, to twist everything he said into a royal decree of her own making. He resolved not to give her the ammunition or satisfaction, he thought to himself; whatever she said, he would destroy her with sly nuance.

“How was your trip?” she asked.

“Everything you might dream a cross-country jaunt with a busload of circus freaks could be,” he replied.

“I’m so glad. You loved the circus so – you were so cute in your little clown suit.”

Hector felt his button being pushed, and wondered how he’d fallen so easily into a pit. He could see the time drawing short not only to get his mother’s affairs in order, but also to set her straight. His huge suitcase, packed with more books than clothes for his stay, fell heavily to the floor, and he sat upon it like a barrister’s bench, leaning upon his elbows and petitioning with gestures.

“I didn’t come all this way to discuss Halloween costumes, Mother. How are you feeling?”

“I feel just fine, now. Just wonderful!”

“Then why am I here? You haven’t even gotten out of your chair – how can you say you feel wonderful?”

“It’s wonderful to see you. And besides, where there’s life, there’s hope,” she smiled as though the notion had just come to her. “That’s wonderful.”

“Yeah, well, that’s a fine sentiment, but it won’t get you far at your age,” he sneered. “We have to face facts and start getting your estate planned.”

“Oh, there’s plenty of time for that,” she assured him. “I’ve got lots of time.”

He let out his exasperation in a great sigh. “We need to face facts,” he repeated. “Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, you know.”

“I don’t know what you mean, but I’m sure it’s very clever.”

Hector had to pace; he felt like a prosecutor presenting final arguments to the jury. “I mean, there’s no use clinging to false hope. It’s best to realize you’re dying and just live with it. Clinging to a dreary existence isn’t living at all, anyway. Best to just admit your problems and move on.”

“Well, I know I have some problems. I haven’t slept through the night in years. But I won’t wallow in it – at least I’m not suffering like my little neighbor.”

Her neighbor was the four-year-old who lived next door, Abbie Fish. Her real name was Absalom – the youngest of seven daughters, her parents sincerely believed she’d be born a boy among the various Sarahs, Rebeccas and Rachels and so on. But God brought her out a girl just to show He might not do what is expected. Her folks decided to stick to the solid biblical name they’d chosen anyway, and for her sake called her Abbie.

Abbie had suffered most of her life with mysterious symptoms and behaviors. She’d been a bright baby, nothing out of the ordinary, but shortly after reaching toddler age a number of odd manners had arisen in her. She did not prosper physically, a lack of appetite leading to lack of growth. The pediatrician there in town blamed it on her chronic constipation, and prescribed an endless series of suppositories. But Abbie never did eat with relish, and learned which hours of the day to hide from her treatments. She was sometimes lethargic, sometimes too energetic, and other times irritable. Her parents learned to take her day-by-day, never knowing which Abbie would get out of bed that morning. But one thing they could count on: She loved her visits with Dr. Croswell.

Dr. Croswell was new to town, just in the last twelve months or so, but he was old to the world. Having spent a career practicing in the big city, he’d semi-retired to Salem to putter away his final years. He’d seen it all, from the old diseases like measles, to the new ones like attention deficit disorder. Nothing fazed him, and he poured out learned attention upon each new patient, regardless of prognosis.

Though a general practitioner, he particularly liked seeing the children. He had a natural gift to draw out their love, either with silly antics or the gentle comfort of his touch. Abbie was no exception, and strangely, though he often pierced her arm with a needle, she excitedly anticipated her monthly appointments and luxuriated in his consolations afterwards. With a head round and fleshy, he might blow out his cheeks like a blowfish, or perhaps make a pucker out of his entire face. His round glasses emphasized his eyes, blue and bright, and his cavalier attitude toward haircuts created a blurred white nimbus around his countenance.

“Now you be sure to come see me again next month!” he’d grin at her.

“Yes! Yes!” Her words were few and simple.

“You sure you can keep on charging us nothing, Doc?” Mr. Fish said. “You sure you want to keep seeing Abbie?”

“You just keep bringing her around as long as it makes her happy.” He played peep-eye with her through the mirror strapped to his head. “You going to visit me again? I expect to keep seeing you for a long time.”

“Yes! Yes!” she jumped in place.

“She reminds me of Shirley Temple!” Hector’s mother said. “You used to love her movies on television – you’d try to dance along with her! You were just so darling. But she’s terribly sick, far sicker than me. It’s just wonderful how Dr. Croswell treats her. He encourages her, and makes her so happy.”

“Well, maybe there’s hope for her. She’s young enough to get her strength back, not like you,” Hector hid his pleasure at finding another educated man had come to town. Maybe he could find some time for intelligent conversation as he suffered through the insipid business of his mother. So his heart sank at her next utterance.

“Oh, no, no hope at all. Dr. Croswell says there’s no hope.”

“What? Well, why the hell doesn’t he just tell her that! It’s cruel to lead her on.”

“Hector! I wish you would watch your language! This is still my house, and I’ll not have you dirtying the air with curses! Why, I remember when your uncle came to visit, though you were only six, you scolded him and scolded him, and all he said was ‘dang.’ So now don’t you bring any filthy language in here.”

“Mother, I’m a grown man. I’ll talk any way I want.”

“I won’t spend my last days listening to that trash.”

At least she’s grasping the futility of her condition, Hector thought. He’d just have to look for an opportunity to straighten out Dr. Croswell himself. “I’m going upstairs,” he cut the subject short.

“Remember that short part of the ceiling over the staircase. Don’t bump your head.”

With a painful grunt, he headed to the winding stairs and made his way up the narrow passage. The suitcase barely squeezed through. His eyes followed the wallpaper’s pattern the same way they always did, and at the top he automatically made the hairpin turn into his room. Not a thing had changed since the last night he’d spent there years ago, except somewhere along the line she’d made the bed. As he looked over the walls, smaller still than he remembered, the things he had left hanging there through high school surprised him – pennants, pin-ups, even childish drawings.

He drew nearer to scrutinize one in particular: A school art project of watercolors on cheap paper, which he’d thought enough of at one time to frame. It portrayed two figures, one large and one small, bent toward each other, working at abutting desks. Hector’s father had been Salem’s lone legal practitioner, going back to youthful days when he’d plunked down a black bag at the bus station and decided this one-horse town suffered a void. Since his earliest days, Hector had heard his father’s promises that he’d join in one day, Stone & Son Attorneys at Law, continuing the tradition into eternity. The old man would stand in the living room, tall and strong, wrap his arm around Mother and promise. Hector believed it with his whole heart, right up to the day his father ran off with the secretary. Looking back now, the deed made sense to Hector, but at the time it was a shock. He wouldn’t have minded so much if he’d expected it.

He took the picture from the wall and set it upon the floor, propped against the wall, back facing outward.

The bed creaked as he sat upon its edge and mulled his fate. He couldn’t figure why he was appointed to such a distasteful bit of business, but he knew his best bet was to get through it as fast as possible. First he would need to get some idea of his mother’s assets, then follow where they took him. He doubted her holdings could amount to much, probably only a bank account or two, plus the house. As he sat projecting the future, he suddenly became aware of his mother’s voice, calling out in an urgent tone.

Hector swung through his door and around the corner; his head banged into the low part of the ceiling. He cocked his voice to curse, then stifled it to a growl under his breath. Rubbing his hand through the well-cropped shock of jet black hair, he stumbled down the steps and strode expectantly before her chair. “What’s the matter?”

“Oh! Hector! When did you get here?”

“I’ve been here for some time now. Did you call me?”

“No, but since you’re here, I wish you would dig up my beds for me. The bulbs will be coming up soon.”

“What? Mother, I moved back here to do important work for you! I don’t have time to be your gardener.”

“The bulbs are important. Don’t you want the hyacinths to be nice? You used to pick them for me every spring – it was so sweet. You used to say they were bottle brushes. ‘Bottle brushes for you, Mama.’ ”

This prattle thoroughly turned Hector’s stomach. “That’s all very good, Mother, but I came back to work on your financial affairs. That’s important work, and it will demand all my time.”

“Well, just go out and look at the flower bed. You always knew how to take care of it so well.”

“I never knew anything of the sort. I can’t stand gardening and never learned anything about it on purpose.”

“Well, I wish you’d go look.”

Hector went out on the porch anyway, just to get away from the conversation. He pointedly ignored the flowers, and instead surveyed the neighborhood as he leaned against the rail. The street hadn’t changed after all these years. The superficial pleasantry of the clapboard houses reflected perfectly the banality of the people within, and he shuddered to think he might need their help with his mother. The dogwood blooms had peeked open, and Hector breathed in the crispness; the early warmth gladdened him, for summer was on its way. The thought of longer daylight hours turned grimly toward the neighbors, and he imagined them puttering aimlessly in their lawns and gardens, not once thinking of what service they might be to him.

Without warning he realized he was watching a little girl in front of the next house down. Her quiet behavior had lulled him – it didn’t seem like she was doing anything. He didn’t have any experience to base this judgment upon, but he didn’t think she looked as old as four. Still, he thought, this must be Abbie. Her hair was done up in a ragged ponytail, and she wore the smallest pair of cat-eye glasses Hector had ever seen. On closer inspection, he could see she had a bottle of soap bubbles: Time and again, she inserted the wand, then waved it much too vigorously to make a bubble.

She looked small, but not particularly sick. Perhaps she has some rare cancer, a disease too mysterious for the bumpkins here to recognize, he thought. He imagined an exotic tumor deep within her, undetectable by x-ray but still filling her body with poisonous tendrils. She really is an object of pity, not only so ill but completely ignorant of her condition. If she knew, at least she could prepare herself; perhaps she could even demand better medical care, he thought. She could force her parents to take her away, take her to doctors who actually knew something about treating the sick. Maybe I can help this child, Hector thought, knowing the truth would help her. Nobody else in town would be honest with her, maybe I can do her a favor. He’d try being friendly with her, then bring up the subject of her illness.

“You’re waving your wand too hard,” he called out helpfully. “Wave your wand gently to make a bubble.”

She looked in the direction of the voice, her owlish eyes magnified in her glasses. She held up the bottle and turned it upside down. “No soap,” she said.

Hector drooped his head and shook it wearily. She’s no different from everyone else here, he thought – at least she has her age as an excuse. “Oh,” was all he could reply. “Are you Abbie?”

“Yes.”

“You’re a cute little girl,” he crooned. “I’ll bet you’re smart, too.”

Abbie didn’t answer, but she shook the bottle to make sure there was no soap.

“Do you go to school?”

“No.”

“How old are you?”

She sorted out four fingers and held them up.

“Will you come closer, so I don’t have to yell at you?”

“No.”

“Why not? I can’t talk to you if I have to yell.”

“No! Mama says, can’t go over there no more!”

“Please? I won’t hurt you. I’m Mrs. Stone’s son.”

“No! No!” Abbie grew irritable.

“But why not?”

“Dr. Cros’l says no! No! No! No! No!” Her voice grew into a piercing scream, like a whistle with a pea in it.

Hector stood stunned.

“Leave me alone! Not going to you!” Abbie clinched her fists as she berated him.

The door to the house opened, and Mrs. Fish leaned out. “Abbie! Keep your voice down!” She cast a stern look at Hector and added, “You’d better come on in.” Abbie marched up her porch steps, leaving Hector alone and confounded, as though he’d forgotten to study for a test.

The encounter only made him more determined to help the girl. Obviously, she’d been thoroughly conditioned, and he’d have to do some work to break through to her. Perhaps he should talk to this Dr. Croswell first, and see if he knew anything. He decided to patiently watch for the right opportunity with the girl, and, in the meantime, he turned his concentration to his mother’s papers. In the spare bedroom he found towering stacks, a collection of old forms and documents, mixed with unopened mail. Hector’s thoughts roiled as he realized the mountain of difficulties he had to climb. The days dragged into weeks as he sorted through each sheet of paper, and he could feel his interest and energy for the project draining out of him.

Despondent, one stormy day he simply planted himself on the porch to watch the downpour. Sitting in front of a screened window, he carried on an exchange with his mother, next to the window in her chair.

“That gutter has a leak,” said the voice through the window. A stream of rainwater was pouring over the edge of the porch roof.

“That’s the kink in the gutter,” said Hector. “The downspout’s clogged, so the water rushes over that bent part.”

“I wish you could look at that.”

“I am looking at it.”

“You haven’t done any work here since you were in high school.”

“Mother, I’ve been working on your estate ever since I got back. That’s all I’ve been doing, and it’s killing me. How could you let so much paperwork accumulate? I don’t think I should have to fix the house, too.”

“You haven’t done a thing I asked you to, ever since you were in high school.”

“It’s been some time since I was in high school.”

“I remember. I remember the little shoeshine kit you made in woodshop. You’re so cute when you use it out there on the porch. Is that what you’re doing?”

“Mother, that box fell apart a year after I made it, and I haven’t been in high school for a long time now. You need to accept that I’m an adult. Life goes on.”

“I have some shoes that need shining. I wish you would take care of them.”

The rain came down as the day grew old. In the horizon the canopy of dark clouds broke, and the setting sun burned the sky red. Next door, Abbie Fish came out to play in the warm showers. She stood with her head pitched backwards, feeling the drops patter upon her face. Hector hadn’t seen her since their first meeting, such had been his devotion to organizing papers, and he tersely observed her play. She was wearing a baggy pink one-piece swimsuit, with cartoon kittens all over it. Apparently her parents didn’t care much about her, letting her get drenched in a storm, he thought. He moved his chair to the edge of the porch.

“Aren’t you afraid getting wet will make you more sick?” He dispensed with niceties and addressed her illness directly.

“You make me sick,” she said back casually.

Hector already didn’t like the way the conversation was going. He tried a different tact.

“Why don’t you like me?”

“Ma says stay ’way. Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way.”

“You like Dr. Croswell, don’t you?”

“Yup.”

“But he’s never helped you. He can’t make you better.”

“He loves me.”

“But he can’t make you better. Doesn’t that upset you?”

“No.”

“It doesn’t make you mad?”

“You make me mad. Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way.”

Hector grew impatient. “Well, you don’t have to listen to him. He’s not telling you the truth – he doesn’t want you to know. But you’re not going to get well.”

“You leave Dr. Cros’l ’lone! He’s nice to me!”

“Well, he hasn’t done you a bit of good. It’s better for you to know.”

“Dr. Cros’l says stay ’way!” Abbie’s screaming became intense again. “Stay ’way!” She ran back into her house, and Hector stood from his chair. As she disappeared he called out, “You won’t get any better!”

“What did you say to that child?” his mother asked when he entered the house.

“You’re not getting better, either,” he said flatly.

The piles of papers turned into endless calls to local bankers and insurance agents. The small-town idiots didn’t seem to have any answers for him, nor any idea how to find any. Hector felt trapped, in a staring match with the same deeds and contracts day after day, trying to discern some hint of how to cut through the legal tangles. Finding delinquency letters from Internal Revenue did not help his mood, and tax forms haunted his dreams, blowing in the tumbling wind just out of his reach. His resentment toward the weight of responsibility grew, and he longed to pursue only his own interests again. Filial service, once a mere annoyance, now seemed futile and a complete mockery.

He could feel his future fleeting away – he, himself, Hector Stone, the only man of Salem who might make something of himself, was slipping into the clutches of this shabby little world, like an insect looking for morsels in the loose dirt of a doodlebug’s lair. His grand dreams of high-rise offices and power lunches sank into illusion, the exaltation over his fellows becoming a ruinous downfall. Gazing in the mirror, he thought creases had begun to draw down his chiseled face, and gray had sprouted within his hair. I have to get out of here, he thought, I have to break out. But something prevented him from escape – something greater than his mother’s petty files and papers. He first must confront the hollow peace that folded over this town, crush its vacuous resistance to plain-spoken reality. “I’ll not leave until I’ve made a public show of this Dr. Croswell.” And still the work ground on and on.

As spring fully put on summer, often Hector would have to recess to the porch, pausing to relax his mind in its cool shade. He never saw Abbie in her yard during these times, a fact he attributed to the heat, if he happened to think of it at all. He’d done all he could for her anyway. But one day he spied a small collection of cars in front of her house. Hector studied the goings-on from a distance, neither welcome nor willing to stand aside. People filtered in and out of the house, until at length an elderly man in a frumpy suit sauntered out and into the yard. He sucked idly on a pipe, and when the two men’s eyes met, he meandered closer to Hector’s mother’s house.

“Are you Mr. Stone?”

“And you are the great Dr. Croswell!” he replied, smiling thinly.

“Abbie mentioned you to me.”

“I’ll bet. How is she? Still buying into false hope?”

“No – she’s died.” He peered at the pipe as though it was plugged.

“Oh.” Hector was not really surprised, but to hear it said so frankly, without sentimentality, but with benign peace, that caught him off guard. “I don’t suppose you ever did know what she had.”

“Oh, I knew from the first day. Lead poisoning – by the time I saw her, she never had a chance. All the classic symptoms: Anemia, lethargy, what we call ‘failure to flourish,’ some outbursts of bad behavior – you might have noticed that.”

Hector silently nodded.

“Yes, you don’t see it much anymore, but that was it, no doubt about it. Kidney failure finally was too much for her. Probably got into peeling paint – funny thing about little children, how they will eat paint chips, totally innocent to the danger, of course. Old paint was full of lead.” Dr. Croswell looked up at Hector as he relit his pipe. “If only she could’ve stayed away from that peeling paint.”

“So I was right, she didn’t have any hope.”

“No, not for her body getting well. But we kept her spirits up. Abbie enjoyed her life, right up to the last day, dwelling on the love she found. She was a bright and wonderful child, in spite of her suffering. She never surrendered to it. You couldn’t kill her spirit, like her body. You couldn’t’ve done it, no matter what you said.”

Dr. Croswell walked away with no parting word, and considered Abbie’s house carefully as he passed by, then disappeared down the sidewalk. Hector stared blankly at his departure.

He retreated into the darkness of his house. Something about the conversation had left him troubled – why could he reply nothing? Why could he throw out no sharp comeback, no reproof that Croswell could never hope to answer? Something about the doctor had struck him mute. He remembered Abbie’s childish rebukes, and how no reply from him had any effect on her simple adherence to Croswell’s words. A bitter frustration grew in him, a humiliation he’d never experienced, even at the hands of brutal law professors. This vile, simple people had left him with nothing. All that he had left to take hold of was the damnation of his mother’s vain paperwork. If a child could smile her way to death, what good is knowledge? What good is the law – its accusations can’t inspire fear if hope undermines penalty. He saw himself straining at a gnat, wasting his life sorting out the details of his own paltry inheritance. The musky drapes of the front room hung like condemnation all around him. An angry despair enveloped him, as his lone sanctuary of legalistic argument rose within. The law is the law, what’s right is right – throw hope out of the mix. He offers knowledge – no more is needed. He – they – everyone must face their dire lives, and expect nothing more. They must pay the price he has decided. The thought that a child might cling to grace made his throat clinch.

“What’s happened?” his mother asked.

“Why can’t you get done with it and die?” he replied.

* * * * *

Craig Davis was born and bred in Memphis, the land of Elvis and pork barbecue, though neither ever did him any good. After earning journalism degrees at the University of Missouri, he worked in newsrooms for 20 years, then turned his attention to writing fiction in 2004. Davis has written five books available for Kindle, including “A Time for Poncey – And other Stories out of Skullbone.” He has two grown daughters and a dog who refuses to grow up. You can find him online here.

His contributions to Snake-Oil Cure can be found here.

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