Friday, 2 August 2013

The White Picket Fence by Candice Carnes

Picket Fence

My pink nightgown sticks to me, thin with sweat, on this hot July night. My husband, Martin, sleeps on his side of the room. Twelve lonely years have passed since we’ve shared a bed. Twelve years since I’ve known happiness. The memories fade and melt into the heat like a dream, but too many things beg to be done to indulge in the fantasies of what might have been.
Martin and I were engaged for two years before we married. We wanted to do everything right. He picked up a second job. I clipped coupons. We saved up for that American Dream and a few weeks before our first child, a son, Bobby, was born we bought that house in the Northeast Heights: three bedrooms, a two-car garage, and a swimming pool in a big backyard. It was in a good neighborhood of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Two years later, when Julie was born, Martin put up a white picket fence. We worked hard for the life we wanted and it usually paid off.
I have slept nearly two hours tonight. My teen-aged children are fast asleep down the hall, each in their own rooms. Soon Bobby will be leaving for college at New Mexico State University. In a few years even Julie will move on, and I will stay here with Martin, sleeping between the spaces that have become life.
It is only the sound of the swamp cooler that can be heard on nights like these. Desert air conditioning runs on the evaporation of water. A motor pushes the cold moisture through the house. The fan belt in our cooler came loose a few weeks ago. You can hear the squeaking as the wheel turns the air. The insides move like it is breathing. Breathing in and out, jerking as the belt slips again, gasping for air. It struggles. It hisses. It thumps, but it moves. The parts are knocked back into place and the cycle starts all over again. All the while, there is the sound of the pump pulling and pushing the water, the constant sound of dripping. It is the heart of the house surviving the night.
Water in the desert is an unnatural thing. The cement swimming hole rests abandoned and drained of life. The plastic lining has deteriorated over the years. We should have never wanted a swimming pool. It’s a terrible waste of water and a selfish symbol of prestige to have in a place so thirsty.
Martin was once a championship diver. I was afraid of the water, but I went to all his swim meets in college. He was the sort of man who had plans. He offered me security. In return, I gave him all my affection and supported his goals in every way that I could. It wasn’t a love of passion, but it was love.
It was a few days after the fourth of July one summer. Bobby had just turned five and Julie would be three in August. Martin had just been promoted to senior loan officer. I was teaching second grade and enjoying the summer break. I had brand-new kitchen appliances. Martin had installed cabinets with marble countertops. I stood barefoot in the kitchen, chopping vegetables, feeling like a cliché and not really minding. I ran the water in the kitchen sink until steam formed in the stainless steel basin so that I could wash the dishes.
The air conditioner blew a continuous stream of fresh air down the stairs. In that moment I forgot why I used to hate summer.
That’s when Bobby ran in the house. He almost slipped on the kitchen tile. He made no sense, but grabbed hold of my arm, and started pulling me towards the back door.
I ran outside.
My two small children looked at me like I knew what to do. They were still at that age when they thought their mother could fix anything.
Martin’s body clung to the bottom of the pool.
Daddy hit his head.” Bobby said; he didn’t sound alarmed. He sounded like any 5-year-old sounded when stating a fact.
The sky is blue. My shoe is untied. Daddy hit his head.”
A patch of blood covered the edge of the diving board. I was so afraid of the water. I never even learned how to swim. I dropped the cordless phone three times trying to dial 911 and yelled like a crazy woman into the receiver. I watched Martin’s body lying face down. He slowly rose to the top, and I knew he had drowned.
I handed the phone to Bobby.
I tried to jump in, but I couldn’t. Even now, I wonder if I might have been able to swim if I tried. I threw the lifeguard rescue bag into the pool. I don’t know what I was thinking; he was unconscious.
I ran to the shallow end where the kids usually played. I walked until the water reached deeper and deeper and into my nose. I felt it burn my nostrils. And I choked up water. I reached for the rope dividing the wading area from the diving section. I stretched my limbs, but my arm couldn’t reach.
I pulled myself along the rope to the edge of the pool and grabbed the skimmer. I hoped the pole was long enough for its net to catch on his swimsuit or arm. I managed to bump him, but it was like trying to thread a needle from far away. I couldn’t see what I was doing.
My arms ached and my eyes burned. I was desperate to save him. But I could not let go of my fear. I hung there ready to give up. Then I tried again, even though I knew it was futile.
The fire department arrived first. Two men dived in, heavy with work boots. And yet they dived to save Martin when I could not. They pulled a stranger from the pool while I clung helplessly to the rope unable to do anything.
The ambulance came. I dragged myself to the ledge, climbed out, and watched them. My clothes were drenched. I shivered.
Bobby and Julie looked terrified as men beat on Martin’s chest. I never thought to take the kids in the house.
Clear!” a man yelled.
People drew away from Martin. His body contorted from electric shock.
Then there was silence.
Clear!” the man yelled again.
Martin’s body contorted. A violent clawing, gaping sort of breath escaped his mouth. His body sank as the rescuers lifted him onto the stretcher. The chaos and the noise dissipated. Everyone watched in silence. As the paramedics ran off with Martin, the fence caught on the gurney. The rescuers pushed through in such a hurry that they pulled the wooden planks from the ground. The fence looked like white crooked teeth trying to devour them. A firefighter cut the rogue wires with a pair of pliers, releasing Martin from the house.
I am not sure how I could have lived in a home with a swimming pool and never learned to swim. Sometimes I wonder how I could be a mother and still so fearful that I could put not only Martin, but my own children in danger. This bothers me, but I don’t let myself feel it. Feelings, good or bad, are of no use to Martin and my children now. Not that it matters. No one swims in our pool anymore.
The beeping starts like an alarm clock marking the passage of two hours. It is the feeding pump again. I make my way to Martin, put the machine on hold, and lower the head of his bed. Laying him flat will make it easier to turn him. I remove the pillows from his back and pull the draw sheet turning him to his left. A new bedsore is forming on the right side of his boney hip. It’s important not to leave him there long.
In the hospital, I was told he was dying. He had no living will so we took every extreme measure. Three weeks after the accident, Dr. Chavez came to Martin’s room. She was a resident at UNMH, the University of New Mexico’s teaching hospital, the regional trauma center, where Martin was treated in the emergency room.
“I don’t think Martin is going to wake up,” she said. Her turquoise-green scrubs and lab coat gave her authority despite her young appearance. “I think that soon we should make arrangements for hospice care,” she said. “Do you want me to find him a bed somewhere in a nursing facility, or do you think that you might like to take him home?”
“I will take him home.” The words came from my mouth, but they were not mine. My words would not do such a thing. My words would not have betrayed Martin by accepting his imminent death. Like a good wife, I would care for my husband and pray for a miracle.
The plan was to let Martin die in peace at home. Only Martin didn’t die, and when he didn’t, no one knew what to do. Days turned into weeks, weeks to months, months to years, and a whole decade passed, but Martin did not. Hospice care turned into long-term care. The children grew up. Time kept moving. I got that miracle, but not the way I wanted. Martin didn’t pass away, but he never woke up. I feared that he would die, and I hoped that he would stop suffering, and I accepted that nothing would ever be right. I tried to keep surviving and not think about what I wanted.
Martin stayed here. His muscular stocky physique slowly transformed. He became thin and stiff as his body tightened like a rubber band stretched to its extremes. The routine of Martin’s decay became ordinary. I decided it was the hold of the house that kept Martin alive.
Through the years I manage to survive on so much less than I ever thought possible. Eventually, I quit my job. I even receive food stamps. Martin would have never taken handouts, but without him to lead me, I take what I am offered. I have swallowed more pride than water, and I have drowned in my need.
I see now what a foolish thing it is to worry. One funding for Martin’s care will run out. Another one will start. A charity will pick us up as a cause. A church will sell baked goods. There are good people out there who make it possible for us to keep living like this forever.
It’s not the money that would have bothered Martin. It’s the kids. My children, who like me, are too tired to care about the house that along with Martin is falling into decay. My teenagers who help me bathe and clean a father whom they never really knew.
I tell them not to worry about it. I tell them to do their homework. I tell them to go out. While other parents can’t keep their teenagers at home, I can’t get them away. They don’t make friends easily. What can they possibly have in common with people their own age? Like me, their lives feed the needs of Martin and the house.
Mom,” Bobby once told me, “Everyone’s family is messed up. There is no such thing as perfect.”
It would bother me less if my children were typical rebels, but they aren’t. They are good kids despite it all, but they don’t know how to have fun. I begged Bobby to go away to school. In a few years, I will beg Julie to go. As Martin’s caregiver, I need them here, but as their mother, I need for them to be free.
Sometimes I’m so angry at Martin for abandoning me, and leaving behind the burdens of his body, I forget to always speak softly to him. Sometimes I wonder if he can tell the difference. As much as I’m ashamed to admit it, I’m not always as kind to him as I know I should be. Love is why I brought Martin home, that day so long ago, but that’s not why I do it now. I do it now because it is what I know. I do it, because it’s what I do.
I try to put these thoughts out of my head now, before I run out of time. In this heat, sleep will be thick and restless. Tomorrow, I will start it all over again. It’s the summers that are the hardest. They should be such lazy days. They are days for barbeques, and backyards, and swimming pools that seemed like such a good idea at the time.
These are warm sleepy days when my sensibilities fade, and I forget to turn Martin. This summer especially, I have grown lazy. It’s always in the summer that the bedsores form and the least likely time I can find help.
The routine that I depend on so much is disturbed further by the air-conditioner that fails a little more every day. I sleep faintly. Lately, I have been so tired that I want to sleep until my body and mind melt away. It is only the breeze of the air conditioner that keeps me sentient. The sound of the pump squeals, as even it begins to fail. The water drip, drip, drips off the side and trickles over the top. Last week the float seemed to give up. As the pan keeps flooding I wonder if any moisture remains in the pads. It could just be hot air blowing now, but I’m too tired to check.
I raise the head of Martin’s bed back to thirty degrees, to prevent aspiration, before I start the feeding tube again. I set the alarm for two hours.
Outside the sharp points of the white picket fence jut out at odd angles. They remind me of stalagmites grown up from the dripping of water over time. Weeds have grown as tall as trees in our big backyard. Insects crawl out from a crack in the pool’s cement wall.
Hungry for sleep, I crawl into my own bed. My body aches with fever. I listen to the sound of the air conditioner as it struggles to move. The belt slides from right to left on the pulley, screeching as it falls in and out of place. The breathing of the machine sounds irregular. For a moment, I think that it and Martin are the same thread unraveling. I close my eyes, too exhausted to care about my fate, or his. Dreams and nightmares start to meet in that place where sleep takes over.
The gears grind to a halt as the belt snaps.

About the Author: Candice has been a hands-on caregiver for over twelve years and her work in patient care has been a major influence on her writing. She earned her BFA in creative writing at Goddard College with a concentration in illness narratives. Her work has appeared in a number of literary magazines. You can find out more about her at:

Image: (c) Isaac Tovar