Rhonda Browning White won the 2019 Press 53 Award for Short Fiction for her story collection, The Lightness of Water & Other Stories. Her work has appeared in Qu Literary Journal, Hospital Drive, HeartWood Literary Review, Bellevue Literary Review, Steel Toe Review, Ploughshares Writing Lessons, Tiny Text, NewPages, South 85 Journal, The Skinny Poetry Journal, WV Executive, Mountain Echoes, Gambit, Justus Roux, Bluestone Review, and in the anthologies Ice Cream Secrets, Appalachia’s Last Stand, and Mountain Voices. Her blog “Read. Write. Live!” is found at www.RhondaBrowningWhite.com. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina, and was awarded a fellowship from Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise. She resides near Daytona Beach, Florida.
Enjoy a story from Rhonda’s award-winning collection and then stop by Rhonda’s Press 53 author page to purchase a copy.
Worth Fighting For
Clinton came from good quarreling stock. William and Macie Slade’s bickering, arguments, and barbed debates were the stuff of local legend. After one infamous fight in which his mother had thrown a whole roasted chicken at his father’s head, Clinton had asked his father why he didn’t just leave and marry someone he could get along with. William had backhanded his thirteen-year-old son so hard that Clinton’s jaw momentarily disengaged, and blood spurted from his lip—the only time his father had ever hit him.
“I took a vow before God!” his father growled, voice full of venom. “’Til death do us part.” William shrugged off his anger like a wet coat, swiped the blood from Clinton’s chin with a flick of his finger and winked. “Besides, why would I leave the devil’s daughter, only to marry his sister, instead? All women are wicked, son, but it’s a blessing to marry one, and a duty to stay with her.”
Clinton sucked his bleeding lip, wondering if marriage was God’s blessing or His curse. He was too smart to ask.
That night, Clinton counted out the months between his parents’ anniversary and his birthday, discovered they must have conceived him in a fit of passion. He was William and Macie’s only child. Their love child.
A smile now tugged Clinton’s lips at the twisted memory.
“Stop smiling, Clinton. It’s not funny,” his wife Paula said from across the kitchen table. “I can’t stand their constant warring. We should drive into town and get a room. I can’t put up with it all weekend. I told you this would happen.” She huffed. “We should have made a reservation before we left home, like I said.”
Clinton glanced at his mother, then closed his eyes. Didn’t Paula realize she sounded just like them? Is that why he’d married her, the familiarity of conflict?
Macie yanked the dish towel from her shoulder and threw it onto the Formica tabletop, where it knocked over Clinton’s nearly empty coffee cup, spilling the dregs in an ugly brown stream across the table. “William, turn down that blasted television! I can’t hear myself talk.”
The Ben-Gay commercial spouting from the living room quieted a decibel. “That ain’t stopped you yet,” William yelled.
Macie slid the Bundt pan onto the wire rack, slammed shut the oven door hard enough to vibrate the table. “Shut your trap, old man!”
Paula’s over-plucked brows formed severe angles as she leaned again toward Clinton. “You know they’re miserable. Do you think they’d get a divorce if we paid for it? Maybe they just can’t afford it.”
“For God’s sake, Paula.” Clinton yanked the damp towel from the table, carried it to the kitchen sink, rinsed it and draped it over the lip of the sink. His parents’ relentless bickering was the one thing he could count on. He had no idea why or when they’d started arguing, but it had gone on for as long as he’d been alive. Sometimes he’d caught them grinning at one another during a heated fight, as if they enjoyed it. Nearly fifty years of marriage, and their relationship never changed. He’d be damned if he’d be the one to change it.
Paula’s answer to everything was to walk away. She’d walked away from her ex-husband the night of their first anniversary, from her final semester at college two months before graduation, and from three jobs since Clinton had married her. His marriage was a waiting game—him waiting for Paula to leave him. Maybe he was tired of waiting. Maybe he’d leave, first.
“I don’t do drama, and I don’t do fighting,” she told him on their wedding day. Said nothing in life was worth fighting for, anyway.
Now he stared out the window at the leafless oak, picking out the last few rotting boards that had once been his tree house, his refuge from the brawling. He didn’t know how much longer Paula would stay with him before leaving, but he knew he’d never ask her to stay. Maybe he couldn’t live happily ever after with his wife, but he didn’t want what his parents had, either. It was only after he and his wife moved away from Hillsville for one of Paula’s new jobs that Clinton realized he’d made a life of doing things he didn’t want to do. Holding on to Paula wouldn’t be one of them.
“What’s a man have to do to get a drink of water around here?” William called from the living room.
“I guess he has to get off his—”
“Mom!” Clinton said. “Can you and Dad tone it down a bit, just for one day?” He pressed his lips into a thin smile directed at his wife. “I’ll bring you a glass of water, Dad,” he called.
Paula stood and took a glass from the cabinet, handed it to Clinton. “Told you we shouldn’t have come,” she whispered as he filled the glass. “It’s always the same.” She rolled her eyes when the volume of the living room television grew so loud she had to raise her voice to be heard. “God knows why your parents haven’t killed each other and ended their misery. Ours, too.”
Clinton had heard the comment before, not just from his wife, but from aunts, uncles, the county sheriff, even the preacher at the Methodist church.
“Look at the time,” Paula said too brightly. “Mrs. Slade, it’s nearly time to leave for your appointment.” She winked at Clinton. “I can drive you. Do you want to change before you go?”
Clinton’s mother looked down at her calico, snap-front housedress, then fixed Paula in a cool stare. “What’s wrong with what I’m wearing?”
Paula shifted, smoothed her skirt. “Not a thing. You look just—lovely. I’ll—let me get my coat, and we’ll be on our way.”
“You stay here and watch the cake,” she said to Paula, then shot a warning look at Clinton. “Fifty-five minutes and not a second more, you hear?”
The television went silent. “I’m taking her to the doctor,” William called from the living room. “You two came all this way, you don’t want to spend your vacation sitting in a waiting room full of germs.” He grunted. “My luck, I’ll probably catch funeral ammonia from one of them old geezers while I’m waiting on her.”
Paula lifted her chin. “Funeral ammonia?”
“Pneumonia,” Clinton translated. “The kind that’ll kill you.”
“Macie Slade!” his father yelled from the living room. “Get a move on. Doc Carson won’t wait all day. You ain’t that special.”
Clinton turned and grasped his mother’s arm, reached for an answer to the question he couldn’t think to ask. She pulled away, bustled across the kitchen. “Gotta get my purse, before that old fool out there leaves without me.”
“Mom, you’re seeing Dr. Carson? Why are you seeing Dr. Carson?”
His mother moved faster than her years should have allowed, ducked into the hallway and climbed the stairs away from her son.
“Who’s Dr. Carson?” Paula asked.
Clinton pushed past her on the way to the living room. “Dad, why is Mom seeing Dr. Carson?”
William Slade stood by the door, shoving his meaty hands into the same quilted, brown-twill jacket he’d worn when Clinton moved away from Hillsville five years ago. “’Cause he’s the one who Doc Fenwick sent her to, I reckon.”
“Okay, but why?
“Who’s Dr. Carson?” Paula struck an absurdly demanding pose in the doorway between the kitchen and living room, her fingers splayed against the daisy wallpaper in way that made her fingers look like petals, her palm the flower’s orange center.
William took a long time fastening the metal buttons on his jacket, his thick fingers slow, certain. “Some test results,” he finally mumbled.
Clinton stepped forward, his face a foot from his father’s as he parceled out clipped words. “What—kind—of—test.”
Pain flashed across William’s face, quickly replaced by annoyance as his hands swept the air, missing Clinton’s nose by a scant inch. “A test! Some test. Some biopsy something or the other.”
“Biop—” Clinton’s breath ran out, stealing the word from his mouth.
Macie appeared behind Paula. “Excuse me, please.” She stepped past her daughter-in-law, scowled at her husband. “Goodness gracious, William, I thought you’d have started the car by now. You know I don’t like sitting on cold leather seats. You should have listened to me and bought a car with those nice velour seats. I never did like leather in a car. Too hot in summer, too cold in winter.”
William’s eyes found Macie, and he held her in his gaze, an odd look passing between them that Clinton couldn’t decipher. “Just shuddup and get in the car, woman. You’ll be late to your own funeral.”
Papery lips brushed Clinton’s cheek as his mother whisked past. “Keep it up, William, and you’ll be early to yours.”
The room turned around Clinton, or maybe he turned in the room. He found himself facing Paula, breathless.
She rolled her eyes. “For the last time, Clinton, who is Dr. Carson?”
~ ~ ~
Clinton carried the suitcases from the trunk of Paula’s Lexus into the town’s only bed and breakfast. Paula had told him before they’d married that she wasn’t a hotel kind of girl, so he’d traded relaxing swims in resort pools and morning workouts in gyms with views for afternoon teas and too-sweet breakfasts with strangers.
She appraised their room, slid a finger down a curtain made from the same silk damask that covered the upper half of the walls, and she appeared to find it suitable. “This is what your parents should do to their house.” Her eyes shifted as she licked her lips. “Get rid of those daisies in the living room and the teapot wallpaper in the kitchen.”
“Like that’ll ever happen.”
“Yeah. We’ll probably be the ones who’ll have to change it.”
“What do you mean?”
Her cheeks flushed. “Oh, you know what I mean. Someday. No time soon, of course. You’re their only child. You’ll inherit their house when . . . you know.” She smoothed an imaginary wrinkle in the bedspread. “That’s a long time away. Nothing to worry about now.”
Clinton flung the larger of the two suitcases—Paula’s—onto the bed, skewing the coverlet. “We should be getting back. They’ll be home already, and I want to hear what the doctor said.”
“What’s the rush? Dinner’s not for another hour, and if we get there too early, your mom will want to give me another cooking lesson. I’m sure she’ll blame that overdone cake on me, too.” Her lips twisted to one side. “You can ask them about the test results over dinner. Maybe there’ll be less shouting that way.”
“It was a biopsy, Paula. They sent her to an oncologist. I think it’s pretty obvious what the test results revealed.” He stood by the rolltop desk, gouged his finger into a hole dug into the wood by a former bored guest. “I’m sure there’ll be more to discuss than polite dinner conversation.”
Paula tugged at her lip, and for a moment her eyes appeared wet and shiny, and it startled Clinton that she looked like she might cry. She sniffed a deep breath, huffed it out slowly, loudly. “I just wanted a little time to decompress, you know?” She pulled out her cell phone, touched the first number on speed dial, turned her back to Clinton. “Let me check on the store, then we’ll go.” She spoke into the phone before waiting for Clinton’s response.
Clinton sank onto the bed, stared toward the window, unable to see what lay beyond the haziness of the sheer curtain.
“Are you listening to me?”
He turned toward the irritated tone of Paula’s voice, more than toward her words. “Yes?”
“Heather’s going to cost me the Landers’ job by the time I get back down there. She ordered the wrong upholstery pattern, and it won’t work with the other tapestries in their study.” She rubbed the back of her neck. “Honestly, it’s impossible to teach that woman the importance of detail. She never seems to grasp the little things.”
Clinton set his jaw. “Why don’t you just drive on home? I’ll go back and stay at Mom and Dad’s, take care of whatever they need on my own. You know you’ll be happier.” He wanted a fight, needed a fight. He hadn’t expected her relieved smile.
“Oh, honey, you’re absolutely right, you know? All their bickering . . . well, it rattles my mind. And that doctor drama, it reminds me too much of Daddy’s sickness when I was a child. I can’t handle it.”
Clinton knew little of her father’s “sickness,” other than the man had run out on his family and drank himself to death. It hardly seemed the same.
She perched lightly next to him on the very edge of the bed, like a bird ready for flight, and lightly patted his leg. “If you’ll get our bags, I’ll take care of the front desk.” She smoothed a strand of hair back into her French twist and headed for the door. She paused there, delicately sliding her fingertips over the damask wallpaper again, then she strolled out.
Clinton followed. Disappointment pulled the corners of his mouth. What was wrong with this woman? Didn’t she realize now was the time he needed her the most? He hefted her overstuffed suitcase into the trunk, part of him wishing it wouldn’t be unloaded at home, part of him knowing it would be.
Paula’s high heels clicked on the cobblestone, and she touched Clinton’s arm. “Thank you for being so understand-ing about this, Clinton. I really need to make a good impression on the Landers. If she likes my work . . . well, you never know where it could lead.” Her smile appeared too tight. “You’re a good man.”
“I’ll just call a cab, Paula,” he said when she walked toward the passenger side. “We’re so close to the interstate, there’s no need to drive me into the country and come back out here again.”
“That’s silly,” she said, pausing with her hand on the car door. “We haven’t had an hour alone since we got here. That’s no kind of vacation. At least let me ride with you back to your parents’ house.”
“It’s okay. Really. You should get on the road, get home before dark.”
She walked back to him. Her quick kiss caught only the side of his mouth, but this time her smile was genuine. “Tell your parents I said goodbye.”
~ ~ ~
Clinton sat in the dawning light of his parents’ living room, listening to the too-loud tick of the mantle-clock as the hour approached five. He propped his elbows on his knees, picked at a hangnail. Stage four. His mother would start chemo on Tuesday, two days after his scheduled return home. He should stay. He’d call Paula later, tell her his mother needed his help. The time apart might do his marriage good. It’d give him time to think, sort through things, figure out what he was doing with his life. Maybe his discontent with work was seeping into his life at home. He was tired of teaching history to high-school students who didn’t believe the past mattered.
He walked softly toward the kitchen, avoiding the creaking board in the living room floor, but he stopped when he heard the crunch of gravel in the driveway. Someone turning around? The paperboy, maybe. He stepped to the window, surprised to see Paula’s Lexus. He watched her for a moment, unsure why she’d returned. She sat behind the wheel, looking up at the house’s second-story windows. Checking to see if anyone was awake at this hour, he supposed.
Clinton opened the front door carefully, so as not to wake his parents. His father’s ratty house slippers sat just outside the door, and he slipped into them. A brisk chill raced across his skin, causing him to shiver.
A relieved smile lit Paula’s face when she saw him. The car door chimed when she opened it, and she stepped out and rushed toward him. “How are you, Clinton?” she asked. “I feel so bad about leaving you when I did. I just didn’t think—didn’t want to believe—well, the news—it’s such a shock. How’s your mother? Your father? I didn’t expect. . .” Her words rolled out on one foggy breath, and she slid her arms around him.
Clinton held his wife, patted her back. He didn’t know what to say, didn’t think he’d see her until he returned home, wasn’t sure she’d even be there when he arrived. “Hey there,” he finally managed.
Paula pulled back and looked up at him, her eyes watery despite her smile. “I have some good news.” She placed her hands on his chest. “I saved the Landers job, and better still, she referred me to the Reynoldses—you know, that estate home next door to her?—and Mrs. Reynolds hired me on the spot. It’ll pay enough for you to take some time off, if you want. Spend it with your mother.”
Clinton’s mouth opened, then shut, but he didn’t speak. He’d thought she’d run away again, yet here she stood in front of him. He’d thought her leaving was selfish, but she’d returned offering precious gifts of time and financial support. Nothing made sense. He rubbed his eyes with his fingers.
She tilted her head to one side and looked at him. “Did I wake you?” Paula took his hand, led him toward the door. “It’s freezing out here. Let’s get you back inside . . . before you catch funeral ammonia.”
She smiled, and even through his confusion, he recognized the burning of his face as shame. It mortified him that he’d seriously thought of leaving her.
He put on coffee while Paula returned to the car to bring in a bag of fruit and a box of pastries she’d picked up at the twenty-four-hour grocery on the way through town. She put the sweet rolls in the oven to warm, and then she and Clinton cut up the fruit, the two of them working in silence.
“She’s a fighter,” Paula finally whispered as she sliced a red apple. “She’ll be okay.”
It surprised Clinton to see tears in her eyes. “Don’t, Paula. Don’t cry.” A floorboard creaked overhead, and he pointed toward the ceiling. “We need to be strong for her. No tears, okay?”
Paula swiped at her eyes. “I want to tell you, before they come down. . . . I shouldn’t have said what I did about them getting a divorce. They have their own way, I guess. You know . . . how they love each other.”
How they love each other. Is that what it was that kept them together? Love? “I don’t know,” Clinton said. “Forty years ago, divorce might have been a good idea for them.”
“You plan on sleeping all day, old man?” Clinton’s mother’s voice carried through the heat vents. “Get up, lazybones.”
Paula’s caramel-colored eyes grew round, and she giggled, and despite the bluish fatigue beneath her eyes, Clinton recognized her loveliness. He wanted to tell her how much it meant that she’d made the two-hour drive back, how much it meant for her to stand here with him, cutting fruit at dawn. He wanted so much to tell her he loved her. Instead, he bent and kissed her forehead.
An hour later, Paula and Clinton’s father worked the daily crossword puzzle in the living room, and while helping his mother put away the breakfast dishes, Clinton offered to stay another week. She shooed him away. “I’ve made it this far without you holding my hand, young man. I reckon I can get by a little longer.”
Clinton’s mother eyed him until he shifted to the other foot. Why couldn’t he bring himself to say it? Were those three words really so difficult, so taboo, so foreign in this family that he couldn’t say them aloud?
“I love you, too,” his mother said, her mouth twisting to one side. “Besides, you and Miz Paula got business at home needs tending.”
Clinton wondered what business she referred to—Paula’s interior design business, or the business of their troubled marriage? And was it really troubled, or was it all in his mind? If arguing could be interpreted as love, and if leaving meant sweet reunions, how would he ever know?
~ ~ ~
Two months later, Clinton again sat in his parents’ living room. “Mom, you need to stick with Dr. Carson’s plan. He knows what’s best.”
She waved her hand. “He knows what’s best for his pocketbook, that’s what he knows.”
“Don’t think of it as four more treatments. Think of it as one more. Then after that, one more. You can get through anyth—”
“Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do, Clinton Slade.” His mother seemed as astonished by the sharp tone of her voice as Clinton did. She grew quiet a moment, then removed and rewrapped the paisley scarf around her head.
Clinton blinked hard and turned away from the raw pink nakedness of her scalp. His mother had lost her long, snowy-white hair after the fifth chemo treatment.
“Only so much vomiting a body can take, anyhow,” she said quietly. Then she smiled at Clinton. “The people at the hospice place are so nice. The nurse who’s going to come here to the house is the kindest, plumpest little thing. A real sweetheart.”
Clinton sat straighter, glared at his father. “Dad, say something.”
He held out his hands. “What? What is it you want me to say, son?”
“Talk her into it! Make her go.” Clinton clenched and unclenched his fists. Of the many times his father should have acquiesced to his mother, this wasn’t one of them.
William’s eyes puddled. “Let it go, son. Leave her be.”
~ ~ ~
It was the kind and plump little hospice nurse who found them at home and phoned Clinton seconds after she called the ambulance.
“Your father was spooned right up against your mother in the bed,” she said. “Hugging her real close, so tight you couldn’t get a wedge between them. The empty OxyContin bottle was lying by his side.” She made a soft humming noise. “We had to take him in, so we couldn’t leave your mother here in the state she was in. They were both alive when they left here in the ambulance, but not by much. You’d better come, quick as you can.”
When Clinton and Paula arrived at the hospital two hours later, Paula balked at the door to the critical care unit. “I can’t go in there,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “I’ll be sick.”
Clinton fixed his eyes on the door. “Wait in the lobby.”
~ ~ ~
The doctor told Clinton they’d pumped his father’s stomach just in time. “If the hospice nurse had found him half an hour later. . .” She shook her head. “They must really love each other. I guess they couldn’t bear the thought of being apart.” She offered a small, sad smile. “Sharing the poison. Like Romeo and Juliet.”
Clinton blinked against the strangeness of her words. “They were married forty years, and they fought like cats and dogs the whole time,” he said, and the guilt of airing their dirty laundry at a time like this made his face burn.
The doctor’s head tilted a scant inch to one side, and she held her gaze steady on Clinton’s face. “Only the most precious things are worth fighting for. Maybe their marriage is more precious to them than you know.” She straightened and touched Clinton’s arm. “Your father will likely move into a regular room tomorrow. We’ll keep him a day or two for observation. Your mother . . . she won’t return home,” the doctor said. “Today, maybe tomorrow. . .” She took one of Clinton’s hands in both of hers, her touch dry and cool. “A chaplain is available to speak with you at any time.”
Clinton’s tongue thickened, stuck to the roof of his mouth. Beeping sounds from each of the unit’s rooms announced heartbeats, continuing life. He nodded, and the doctor patted his hand, then turned and pressed the giant metal button on the wall to open the doors, and she walked out of critical care.
~ ~ ~
Snow-heavy clouds hung low, and dusk approached as Clinton and Paula pulled into the driveway at his parents’ house. “You want me to go in with you, love?” Paula asked.
He stared at her a moment. So many strange words he’d heard today, this last from her lips the strangest. Love, she’d called him. “No. I’m just going to grab a few things for Dad. Mom won’t need—” He shrugged, opened the car door.
In his parents’ bedroom, Clinton stuffed pajamas and a change of clothes into his father’s old Army duffle and slung it over his shoulder. He stepped over papery tissues, dry wipes, empty packets left by the paramedics. He turned toward the bed then, saw the nest his parents’ bodies had made in the center of the double-wedding-ring quilt his mother had stitched before they were married. She should have it with her.
He picked up the quilt, draped it around his chilly shoulders like a boxer leaving the ring, walked outside, and closed the door of his boyhood home.
Paula stood on front porch steps, crying. Light snow flurried from the sky, tiny flakes settling in her hair, melting on her cheeks. “I’m so sorry, honey,” she said, slipping her hand into his.
Clinton sheltered her beneath his blanketed arm, led her to the car, gripped her hand until she wriggled her fingers against him.