‘There are four things you should know.’
‘Usually things come in threes,’ Ed mentioned almost under his breath. Almost.
Donny smiled – not unusual for Donny since his mouth was always twisted up at the corners, even when there were tears coming down his eyes (which was alarmingly often), even when he was sleeping (which happened more these days than last year or than the year before that). So maybe it wasn’t a smile so much as a pause to let the almost-under-the-breath comment register before he went on.
Ed shifted in his seat at the awkwardness. And it was awkward even though long pauses in any conversation with Donny were not uncommon, given Donny’s mental state. Ed knew this intellectually (even though for a moment, he wondered if mental state was the appropriate phrase to use as opposed to mental decline. One implied a stasis, the other a progression—or digression.)
Regardless, Donny was fingering his daily medication organizer. This was, after all, how he counted things off. He couldn’t count the fingers on his hands or toes on his feet. But a day’s worth of pills meant something to him, rattling around the hollow chambers. Wheels on his wheel chair? Count Sunday through Wednesday, rattle-rattle, and the number of course is four. Houses to pass on his way to the Kwik Trip? Count Sunday through Friday, rattle-rattle, and the number is six. Number of hugs to give before bed? That had been Sunday through Tuesday until Mona moved out, then Sunday through Monday until Pop died, and these days it was just Sunday: one rattle.
Donny broke through the awkwardness and the subsequent mental gymnastics of Ed’s restless brain with perhaps the most shocking pronouncement: ‘Firstly, Mom’s trying–,’ he paused for breath as a bubble of saliva balanced on his lower lip. ‘Mom’s trying—to kill me.’
Ed shifted again. ‘Donny, do you know how that sounds?’
Donny wiped his dry, crusty eyes with palsied hands but left the bubble to linger on its thin high-wire between a toothy black pit and a splattering fall to the hardwood below.
Ed tried again, ‘Donny, I really don’t think—‘
‘Secondly, she’s already gotten rid of Digit.’
It’s true, the dog wasn’t pattering around the house today. In fact, in the two hours that Ed had been sitting in the sunroom, he hadn’t seen Digit at all. And Sylvia hadn’t mentioned a thing about the dog’s passing.
‘Well, Digit was an old dog, wasn’t he?’
‘Sixteen and five sixths of a year old,’ Donny reported with astonishing precision. Memorized fact, no counting there.
‘Old dogs tend to pass on,’ Ed reasoned.
‘He died on a Tuesday night,’ Donny went on.
‘Old dogs – you know, Donny,’ Ed repeated. ‘Sorry to hear it.’
Old dogs tend to pass on, Ed thought. As do young men with chromosomal abnormalities. Cells divide and replicate. Life begets life. We long for the other. And in so doing, ensure the next generation of unknown. We fly down the snow-packed highway, try not to touch the wheel too much, let the tires make their own whining way across the hard-packed ice. Ed cracked his knuckles, felt the muscles in his forearms move like snakes under his shirt.
‘How you boys doing in here?’ Sylvia popped her head in, smiling.
Donny twisted his torso the best he could to angle his face toward the door. The corners of his mouth were still drawn up, the lips thin against his gawky-toothed mug. Ed could tell though that Donny wasn’t really smiling. Donny’s eyes were frowning, the corners tired as the house’s drooping eves, the eyes frozen on the ceiling.
‘We’re great, Miss Bartles.’
‘So glad, Ed. You know, it means a lot to me that you still find the time to stop by and say hi to Donny on these Saturday evenings when you’re home,’ she paused, as if about to say something else, then thought better of it before the moment became too terribly awkward, winked at the young man sitting with her son, quietly shut the door, and disappeared somewhere in the silence on the other side.
Donny didn’t move.
‘Uh, Donny, you ok, buddy?’
His muscles loosened just enough so that he could turn back toward Ed.
‘Third—,’ again, Donny paused for breath. ‘Thirdly, I saw Mom order a package from the rainforest.’ He must have meant Amazon. ‘She usually gets a calendar now when its snowy and cold.’
‘Right, Donny, for the upcoming year. Makes sense.’
‘There was no calendar. It was a box that rattled.’
‘Ok, no big deal, Donny.’
‘It rattled and said–,’ again, a pause as Donny fought a little harder for breath. The bubble wobbled like a smooth-edged jewel set upon a ribbon of red. It wobbled and then, tired of its cruel, cruel world in that gawky-toothed pit, fell shining and beautiful onto the hardwood below. Ed maintained eye contact with Donny. ‘It rattled and it said, “KILLS MICE.”
‘Alright, Donny, this is also the time of year that mice tend toward the indoors. You know, out of the cold.’
They sat, Donny’s lips unusually cracked. He drooled a lot. It was the result of a brokenness in his body. There was the confusion of hormones that were always activated for his next meal and the weakness of a musculature that was more focused on maintaining the halting procession of breaths than it was on keeping the pooled saliva inconspicuously gathered within his mouth.
Still, since that one jeweled bubble fell to the floor, there didn’t seem to be any more. Donny cleared his throat, sat dumbly as his eyes drifted up to the ceiling.
It wasn’t time to leave yet, but Ed wasn’t sure what to do. It would be another week – seven days, rattle-rattle-rattle – before he’d be able to stop back by Donny’s to check in.
‘Well, you got me hooked, Donny.’
‘You got me, little man, what’s number four?’
Donny’s fingers fidgeted over the daily medication organizer. Ed felt bad – he must have said something. Usually Donny was excited to share his thoughts, his imaginings, but now he was just quiet. He wasn’t even making eye contact, his gaze shifted instead to the pale white of the ceiling. Donny sat, staring at the ceiling on that Saturday night, shaking the upcoming week’s medications. His fingers worked over hollow chambers, feeling the tiny vibrations of the drugs that helped him to breathe, provided some salve to the spasticity of his chest, eased the nightmares that would otherwise pour in with the shadows.
‘You told me that there were four things I should know, right Donny? Was there somewhere you wanted to go? We haven’t gone for a drive lately, bud. Didja want to check in on Uncle Chuck – he’d love to see ya!’ Ed thought for a minute. ‘Well, you let me know, bud. I’ve got a few more minutes.’
Donny sat there, lost in a white oblivion, fingers rattling the only chambers that cared to echo back to him. And one by one, he counted them: Sunday, Monday, Tuesday. One, two, three. The remainder of his days numbered out. Emptiness after that.