Authors: James Patterson,Richard Dilallo
Tags: #Mystery Thriller
MY MOM HAS A big voice. She never shouts, but if she had been an actress she would’ve been heard in the last row of the balcony. At the moment she’s calling from the kitchen.
“If somebody doesn’t come help me shell these butter beans, we’ll be eating nothing but pork shoulder and fresh air for dinner.”
I’m in my old bedroom. I’m lying on my old bed, the one with the red-and-blue plaid cotton spread. Willie will sleep on the other bed, the one I always called the “guest bed,” the one with the matching red-and-blue plaid cotton spread.
Right now everything in our house is looking and sounding like Hallmark cards and Norman Rockwell paintings. Willie and Cabot are playing their video game. Although Cabot is shaking so much that it’s a wonder he can even hold the controls.
Daddy’s been transferred to his wheelchair, and he’s fallen asleep with his earbuds in, listening to some sweet George
Jones tunes. And Mom is basting the pork shoulder and apparently shelling the butter beans all by her lonesome. I can guess what else is for dinner: Mom is the only person I’ve ever known who manages to make Rice-A-Roni from scratch.
“So good that it tastes just as fine as the packaged stuff,”
she always says. Mom’s Rice-A-Roni is deadly rich, with one or two sticks of margarine, and butter beans swimming in more margarine. To top it off, she’ll crack open one of her homemade jars of cranberry sauce with pecans.
I jump up quickly from the bed. That sense of teenage déjà vu drifts in and out of my senses: I’m me at fourteen with a basketball game tonight. I’m me right now, and I spot Willie’s
backpack on the “guest bed.” I’m fourteen, and in a second, I’m a grown-up. And in a minute, I’m standing over a colander with my mom, shelling butter beans.
“I saw that big shiny red Mercedes parked smack across the street, Mom,” I say as I begin squeezing beans from their casings. “It’s so big that it takes up almost two parking spaces.”
“Yeah,” she says. “I see it there sometimes.” Her voice has a forced sort of nonchalance. But she knows where I’m heading with my question about the fancy Mercedes SUV.
“Balboa Littlefield’s car, right? Balboa’s always had a red car,” I say. “A fancy red car. When I was in high school, Balboa had a red Pontiac Firebird, then a Thunderbird. He must have run out of different kinds of birds, ’cause this one is a Mercedes. A red Mercedes.”
Mom doesn’t answer. She pretends to be distracted by the arrival in the kitchen of The Duke, who must have grown tired watching Willie and Cabot play Call of Duty.
“How about a nice fresh butter bean, Mr. The Duke?”
Mom asks as she tosses one into the dog’s mouth. The Duke suddenly has an odd expression on his face. Then he spits it quickly onto the floor.
Mom says to The Duke the same thing she used to say to me and Cabot when we were children: “You just don’t know what tastes good.”
The Duke, disappointed, curls up at our feet and closes his eyes. I return to the conversation that Big Lucy thought she’d escaped.
“We were talking about the red Mercedes, Mom,” I say.
“Were we?” she asks. Suddenly she’s quiet and very innocent, two things she never has been.
I say nothing. Then after a few seconds she speaks sternly. “Oh, for God’s sake, Lucy, of course you know, I know, we both know that that shiny piece of car belongs to Balboa Littlefield. He’s also got a powder-blue Mercedes-Benz just like that one.”
Now it’s my turn to be perturbed. “That son of a bitch has been making money for twenty years dealing drugs to everyone in this town. Nothing ever changes here,” I say. I’m shelling butter beans as fast and angrily as I can.
“Nothing nobody can do about it, Lucy. He’s considered to be an upright citizen here in Walkers Pasture. There’s even talk that they’re going to name that playground with the kiddie pool sprinkler after the wealthy Mr. Littlefield.”
“It makes my blood boil,” I say. “They’d be better off naming it after the devil himself.”
“They just can’t stop Balboa. He pays off the cops. He pays off the judges in Wheeling. He gives out packets of marijuana like they were pumpkin seeds.”
My turn again. “And Balboa Littlefield is the reason you’ve got a son inside, age thirty-two, shaking and sweating,
unemployed and weighing less than The Duke, and, I dunno, useless, awful, stinking. I’ve run out of words.”
“That’s a first,” Mom says.
I’m not amused.
Well, actually I am, but I’m not about to laugh.
Then she adds seriously, “Listen. It’s not entirely Balboa Littlefield’s fault. It’s a problem only because weak folks like Cabot—”
“Oh, please, Mom. Don’t. Just don’t.”
And she stops. At least for a few seconds.
Born and raised here, she has lived on hope and prayer all her life. She has watched the opioid epidemic grow bigger and uglier every month of every year. My brother is just one of so many folks in Walkers Pasture who chew OxyContin like breath mints. Mom knows all this, but she still has nothing but hope and prayer.
My mother kneels on the floor and begins petting The Duke. Then she talks to him. This isn’t the first time she’s used this dog-and-lady trick.
“Funny how fancy-ass people from New York can be just as dumb and stubborn as folks from a pissant little town like Walkers Pasture. Yep, they find it easier to blame their problems on other people. Now, I’m not saying that Balboa Littlefield is a fine upstanding citizen. Recently I heard him referred to as ‘an A-one asshole.’ And I sure do agree with that description. I think Balboa is evil incarnate. But the people who buy drugs from him are just as much to blame, especially if they’ve been helped by other people, like the drug users whose Mom and Daddy paid for treatment center visits over and over again, especially the mom whose knees hurt from praying and never got those prayers answered. We can bitch and carry on about Balboa himself, but because
someone asks you to sin, it doesn’t mean …” And then she stops. Her words turn to tears.
I kneel down beside her. I hold her shoulders. She stops crying.
“Are those butter beans all shelled, Lucy?”
That’s Big Lucy.
“YOU GOT A TAPEWORM inside you, bro?” Cabot asks Willie as my boy shovels in his third helping of honey-baked pork shoulder.
“Maybe I do,” Willie says. Willie’s voice is sharp and high-pitched. Cabot slurs his words. He’s not drunk, but he sounds like he is. I don’t think Willie notices his pronunciation, but I’m sure Big Lucy does. Cabot squints his eyes shut and open, then shut again, then open.
“Open your mouth real wide,” Mom says to Willie. “I’m gonna check for a tapeworm.”
Willie obeys. He stretches his mouth open.
Then Mom becomes a serious detective, looking inside her grandson’s mouth. “No!” she declares. “No. No tapeworm in there, just a pile of teeth and a very large tongue.”
Willie, laughing, goes back to his pork shoulder, and I wonder if anyone else notices that Cabot’s question about the
tapeworm is the first time during supper that he has even spoken. Cabot has eaten almost nothing, only a few sweet bites of Mom’s ridiculously delicious Strawberry Jell-O and Red Cabbage Salad. (Don’t judge it until you’ve taken a taste.) The only person quieter than Cabot is my father. He sits with his head bowed. He eats nothing.
“You look so tired, Mom,” I say.
She shakes her head back and forth. “No. I’m too excited having you and Willie here to be tired. But … soon as Willie finishes eating his pork—assuming he doesn’t want a
helping—I’ll start getting Daddy washed and into bed.”
“I’ll help you,” I say.
“No need to,” Mom says. “We’ve got our system, and to be honest, I think Daddy would be embarrassed.”
“Would you be angry if I asked him, Mom?”
“Of course not,” and I know she is telling the truth. I lean in toward my father.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t like me to help Mom when it’s time for your sleep, Daddy?” I ask.
But he stares at me blankly. Yes? No? I don’t care? Daddy says nothing.
Mom feeds Daddy a tiny forkful of the butter beans and rice. For a moment I think I see a spark of pleasure in his eyes. She holds a Flintstones juice glass to his lips, and he takes a sip of a little red wine mixed with ginger ale.
He still doesn’t say a word.
Mom looks away. Her own eyes sparkle. I used to think she had a talent for holding back her tears. Now I see she has a different talent, a talent for making her eyes sparkle when the tears come.
Supper ends with the predictable, adorable, inevitable question from Willie.
“Hey, Grandma, how come Mom never makes a supper that tastes as good as yours?”
Hmmm. Visions of Lucky Pot must be dancing in his head.
“Well, you best ask your mom, but my guess would be that she’s working her backside off to earn a living so you can have the finer things in life,” says Mom.
Willie smiles. Then he says, “I think you might be right, Grandma.”
My mother laughs, then says, “You are a clever little faker, Willie boy.”
“It runs in the family,” I say.
“Well,” says Big Lucy, “I’ll take Harold to our room, and I’ll leave you all to the cleanup.”
“I’ll start,” says Willie as he pops up from his place. Then he looks over at his uncle Cabot, who has his eyes closed, sleeping like the anonymous passenger next to you on a long airplane trip.
“I see you lost Cabot already,” says my mother with a laugh as she wheels Daddy toward the little bedroom right off the kitchen.
I shake my head, and Willie says, “I’ll let Uncle Cab sleep. He’ll need all his energy for our big video game rematch.”
I take the platter of shredded pork shoulder into the kitchen. I know my mother will repurpose it once, if not twice, during the week. Tacos? Noodles, pork, and American cheese casserole? I spoon it into a Tupperware container.
Willie walks in with four glasses. He holds them cautiously with the fingers of his left hand. And he balances four dinner plates waiter-style on the inside of his right arm. Amazingly, he doesn’t drop anything.
“Let’s not try that again, buddy. Okay?”
“Don’t be a-scared, Mom. I’m good at this.”
“Did you just say ‘a-scared’?” I ask with a touch of mock shock. “You’ve been in Walkers Pasture less than one day and you’re talking like a West Virginian.”
Then, from the dining room, we hear a thud, a big loud clump of a noise, the sound of something or someone falling. It is followed within only a second by the sound of china and glass crashing. Both Willie and I rush the few feet into the dining room.
Cabot is on the floor, motionless. The boy is clear out of it.
Willie and I quickly roll Cabot over onto his back. Willie is frightened. I am, too.
“I don’t think Uncle Cab’s breathing, Mom.”
I have a rule with Willie: I never lie to him. Never. Ever. And right now I’m thinking maybe it’s time to break that rule. I change my mind.
“No, he’s not. Go to the side pocket of my suitcase. Get the med-emergency package,” I say. Meanwhile, I begin thumping Cabot’s chest. By the time I begin CPR, my mother is standing over me. She’s holding a nasal spray.
“Here’s his Narcan,” Mom says. “He’s OD’d. It’s happened before.” She holds Cabot’s head and squeezes the naloxone into his right nostril. It should work. But it doesn’t. “Oh, Jesus Christ!” she yells. “Cabot. Don’t run out on me. Not now, baby. Not now.”
Willie is back. He’s barely controlling his tears. He’s holding a syringe. And I am now holding the injection version of naloxone.
“Help me get his jeans off.” I’m practically yelling. Within seconds the waist of Cabot’s jeans is pulled down to his knees. In the next three seconds I notice so many things—his scrawny thighs, his filthy white jockey shorts, the dry brown scabs on his bloody knees.
I quickly push the syringe into his left outer thigh. Silence. Three seconds come across like three hours.
Then Cabot’s eyes open. He is trying to focus. He looks at Willie.
“No worry, little bro,” he says.
“Why’d you do this to yourself, Uncle Cabot?” says Willie.
Cabot tilts his head in the other direction, slightly away from Willie. Willie storms out of the dining room.
“Mom, call 911,” I say.
Big Lucy doesn’t budge. “No, Lucy. The EMTs are not going to do anything you haven’t already done. You saved him. Your injection. That’s what did it. God bless us all.”
“He needs rehab, Mom. He needs rehab that’s going to stick with him.”
My mother nods. Cabot is trying to sit up. He’s disoriented. He’s rubbing his leg. He’s reaching for his jeans.
“Don’t move, Cab,” I say. “Just stay put for a few minutes. Relax.”
Cabot ignores me. He continues to tug at his jeans.
Then Willie yells from the dining room doorway. His voice is loud and angry. “You heard the lady, Uncle Cabot. Don’t! Move!”
TWO YEARS AGO, WHEN Willie and I spent Fourth of July weekend in Walkers Pasture, he and Cabot bonded over lots of crazy childish things—video games, cold spareribs smeared with grape jelly, the WeCrash Demolition Derby truck track—but, most passionately, they became best buds over (who would have guessed it?) miniature golf.
Not surprisingly, the two of them did not like the “course” in Wheeling. Not that I ever did a big survey, but all miniature golf courses look the same to me. Not to Cabot and Willie. No, their favorite place in the world was an hour-and-a-half ride away, the Hole in Fun, in Burgettstown, Pennsylvania.
How do my son and brother get to the Hole in Fun? Well, I’ve got to drive them while Mom stays home to watch Daddy. Fact is, Cabot lost his driver’s license about forty times for DUI. So if they’re going, I’m driving.
What about Cabot’s near-death experience less than twelve hours ago? Well, he still looks like a burlap bag full of loose
bones. I take his blood pressure, and it’s a very low eighty over fifty-five. The man is still shaking. He’s refused anything to eat (except for half a jelly doughnut) since the emergency naloxone injection. But the most alarming thing is that Balboa Littlefield’s Mercedes is still parked across the street. Cabot has stood at the living room window and checked out the red car a few times, and I know my brother is just itching to pick up a few dozen Percocets or Vicodins.
“We should get heading to the golf place, Lucy,” Cabot says.
I offer him a deal. I tell him that unless I
him consume one fried egg, one slice of buttered toast, and a cup of half tea, half milk, I won’t drive to Pennsylvania. I know he’ll do it for Willie.
Privately I tell Mom that Cabot should be in bed or in a hospital or in rehab.
Her answer is simple: “You’re absolutely right, honey, but the only place he wants to be is at a miniature golf place in Burgettstown, PA.”
Egg gets eaten. Toast gets eaten. Mom and I sit together at the tiny kitchen table. We’re alone for a few moments.
“You’ve been through so much, Mom. Daddy, Cabot. It never really stops, does it?” I say.
I’m not really expecting an answer, or at most, nothing more than a simple no or yes.
Instead she decides to open up. “It just looks a lot worse than it really is. Harold will join his maker soon, and a man as good as your dad is sure to be let into heaven. With Cabot, well, I still think he can make it to getting clean. He’s a son of a bitch with the drugs, but he could still pull through. Best of all, I got you and Willie, and even The Duke is being neat and nice this visit.”
She pauses. She closes her eyes. Then she opens them.
“You might feel this yourself, you know. It’s the birthing life that brought me most of my joy and most of my sorrow. The beautiful new babes for the moms and dads who wanted them so bad … Nothing could have been nicer than that. But …” And she pauses again.
“You’re thinking about the babies you lost?” I suggest.
“No, not really. That’s God’s way. And, if I say so myself, I was a mighty fine midwife.”
“You were,” I say, and I do mean what I say.
“When I think about it,” she says. And she takes a moment to do exactly that. Then she reminisces for both of us. “So many nervous-making things. The Nickelson twins. They had to send one of the two boys to Children’s Hospital in Philly to figure out what his gender was. He had a whole hodgepodge of parts down there.”
“I remember that. Today they would have waited until the baby was older and let him or her decide.”
She talks about the time Larry Staubach, a farm equipment mechanic, was so drunk when Mom arrived for his child’s birth that he stood watching the four hours of labor with a bottle of Dewar’s in one hand and a pump-action hunting rifle in the other.
“I guess if I did something wrong, he was going to shoot me,” Mom says, not joking. “Good thing that little Larry came out as perfect as the Lord intended him. Course little Larry didn’t stay perfect. They got him for armed robbery of a hardware store up by Altoona.”
Mama’s memory battery is turned up real high now. She’s enjoying the talking. She remembers piecing together double boilers and goose down pillows to make an incubator until an ambulance arrived. She remembers little children helping out with the delivery when there were no adult hands available.
She even remembers an encounter that was so frightening “I thought I was walking through a horror movie.”
I vaguely remember her telling me the tale once before.
“Two years ago, this very slick guy came up and sat next to me in Deedee’s Diner. Introduced himself very proper. Said his name was Eagleburg or Eaglehead or something like that. He said he supplied newborns for a few rich people who couldn’t have children of their own, all up in Harrison, New Jersey, some fancy-ass town outside New York. It sorta sounded creepy. I listened for a minute and then just moved myself to another seat at the counter. I needed money bad, but not that bad.”
Mom doesn’t even stop to catch her breath. She launches right into her next story. I serve myself a piece of lemon meringue pie.
“Some other time my friend Georgeann Shea—and I know Georgeann was usually an upright honest sort—wanted her and me to go into business together part-time. She knew a place in Maryland where you could get a certificate that legally let you use the title of doctor. She had this plan where she’d do massage therapy and I’d do prenatal and postnatal counseling. Once again, I could’ve used the cash, but I could never do something that evil. Midwives have to be honest.”
Mom is on a roll. She can whitewash her memory of the bad old days to come back now as the very best of times. And why not? Anyway, I love her stories. But I’ve got to say that four of them is just about my limit.
“Another time there was this woman showed up, same age as me, claimed to be a midwife from Maryland. Hazel was her name, a good old-fashioned name. Hazel says she’s a friend of an ob-gyn doc at Mercy Hospital in Charleston. Well, I had my doubts. After all …”
But Mom doesn’t have the chance to finish her story. Suddenly Willie’s voice comes shouting out from the living room.
“Mom, Grandma. Get in here fast!”
“Oh, shit,” mother and daughter say at the exact same time. It has to be something bad for Cabot.
But then we hear Cabot say, “This little bugger beat me in four straight Call of Duty games.”
“Are you crazy?” my mother says.
“No, really, Grandma,” Willie says. “I really beat him four times.”
“But your screaming out at me damn near killed me with fright,” she says. This is the first time since we arrived that I hear Cabot laugh.
Two hours later, I’m paying ten dollars—five each—so Willie and Cabot can hit the miniature golf course.