Fiction · 03/31/2021

Ventilation

The porch was cluttered, though at dusk under the burned-out bulb I couldn’t have told you with what, and the screen door banged shut behind us as we walked inside. They didn’t have central air, so the blinds were drawn all day, and in the evenings they opened the doors and windows to get the cross breeze, leaving the lights off as long as possible. The living room was a murky space, like a fish tank that hadn’t been cleaned.

Dale was parked in the corner in his old mustard and brown plaid armchair, hooked up to an oxygen tank. This was the summer he was dying of emphysema. The TV seemed always to be on, even if he was dozing and Reba was in another room, washing the dishes or folding the laundry. As long as there wasn’t a game on, she turned it down while we were there, and she brought out egg salad sandwiches and cold bottles of Coke and asked about the drive.

She was technically Evan’s stepmother, but he’d never met her before, and he didn’t know what was going to happen to her after Dale died. Reba had quit her job to take care of him. She was no longer young and had arthritis in her fingers, stiff joints. Sometimes Evan tried to ask her about the future, but somehow the words we had rehearsed in the car fell short, and he found that he couldn’t finish the sentence.

Evan’s father slept through most of our visits, so we nibbled at the sandwiches, looking down at our knees while Reba talked about him, how they’d met a few years earlier, how she’d gone out with a friend and seen him sitting at the bar and thought he was the best-looking man she’d ever seen. She’d never been so attracted to anyone in her life.

It was hard not to turn then toward Dale, who lay in the armchair in a pair of old sweatpants with his mouth hanging open and prongs in his nose. He’d lost fifty pounds at least, Evan said, but I’d never met Dale when he was younger and healthy, so I had to take Evan’s word for it. I wasn’t sure if Evan had either, really, but it didn’t seem like the right time to dicker over details. He had spent a lot of his childhood sitting on the floor of his room, making up games while he waited fruitlessly for his father to come visit. I would have been angry, but he isn’t one to hold a grudge. His mother had recently died, and in his grief he had turned even softer, like a piece of dough under my fingers. One night after too much to drink, he had looked up his father’s number and unexpectedly gotten Reba.

On the television was a commercial for fast food, greasy hamburgers and paper boxes of French fries.

Reba took my arm and led me into the back bedroom. The closet doors were flung open, accordion-style, and she’d laid all of her dresses out on the bed. They were old-fashioned, polyester that had already pilled under the arms, nothing I could ever see myself wearing, but she held me and said that she knew we didn’t know each other very well, but still, she’d come to think of me as a daughter. It was suffocating, being in that room, with its dark heavy drapes and the stale smell of cigarette smoke hovering in the air like a ghost.

On the dresser was a collection of crystal figurines and a large wooden jewelry box with its head thrown back. “Take anything you like,” she said, gesturing at the dresses and the costume jewelry and everything, really, and I tried to stall, noticing all at once that there were empty spaces on the walls where she had already taken down the pictures. Through the open doorway I could see a cut crystal snowflake hanging from a pale thread in front of the bathroom window.

I thought it might be the last time we saw them, that maybe Reba knew something we didn’t, but then Dale hung on through Labor Day and the end of that year. We lived two hours away, so our visits were short and infrequent, but we continued to make the drive. Dale got worse, then better, then worse again, until eventually he died during a heat wave the following summer, a little more than a year after I met him.

A few days later, we drove the same two hours south to attend the funeral. We’d been waiting for his death since the initial phone call and yet, when it happened, it still came as a surprise. It was mid-morning when we arrived in town, already a stifling, airless day. My black dress was stuck to my back in the heat. We stopped for iced coffees on the way to the church. Where was Dale now, I wondered.

Evan parked the car on a side street. We were early; the service wouldn’t start for almost another hour. Nearby, we could hear the sounds of a game, of parents hollering and cheering for their children. Unexpectedly, Evan took my hand as we walked toward the field. He worked in construction, and his fingers were rough. As we drew closer I could hear a man yell, “Go, go, go!” and a loud cheer erupted as someone scored a goal.

We stood on the periphery, watching children in bright colors kick a ball back and forth on the field below, until a fire truck roared by with its lights and sirens and reminded us of where we were.

We never saw Reba again. After the funeral, she sold the house and moved to South Carolina to live with her sister. Dale had been cremated, so there was no gravesite to tend. When we said goodbye in the church parking lot after the service and the potluck luncheon, she held me for too long; we couldn’t seem to let go, and there was nothing I could say to smooth things over in the way I would have liked.

That night, in the dark, Evan came inside me, and sobbed, and for a second I thought that he was choking. It was just such a shock, sometimes, still to be alive.

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Leah Browning is the author of three short nonfiction books and six chapbooks. Orchard City, her second chapbook of flash fiction, was published by Hyacinth Girl Press in 2017. Browning’s short stories and poetry have appeared in Four Way Review, The Forge Literary Magazine, The Threepenny Review, Valparaiso Fiction Review, Watershed Review, Random Sample Review, Mojave River Review, Superstition Review, Newfound, The Homestead Review, Communion Arts Journal, Belletrist Magazine, Poetry South, The Broadkill Review, The Stillwater Review, and elsewhere.