Friday, January 9, 2009

Chapter 11: Breakdown, Part II

“Time to get moving, Mr. Hamilton. Don’t want to be late for work.” Kateri had one arm wrapped around Ray, trapping him against her chest and holding the bottle in his mouth. He sucked greedily at the formula.

“Oh. Yeah.” He stood and glanced around the room. “Work. Oh, boy.” Tears started in his eyes. “I don’t know...” He sank to the chair and buried his face in his hands. “I’m sorry.” Even muffled, he hated the whining tone of his voice. But he couldn’t seem to moderate it. “It’s just too much right now...”

She patted his shoulder. “It’s alright. It’s hard for those of us born here, too. But you’ll get used to it. I promise.” The hand left his back. Her footsteps pattered away into the kitchen, where he heard the refrigerator door open and shut. She walked back into the living room with a rhythmic thumping as she burped the baby. “Think you can make it to the office today?” Vernon shook his head. Kateri nodded and carried Ray into the bedroom. Her arms were empty when she came back. “He’s on the bed. If you’re going to stay home, I’m going to leave the little fellow here with you. I’ve got schoolwork to catch up on. Can’t seem to get it done when I’m watching Ray. He’s too cute to leave alone.”

Vernon wiped his nose on his arm and climbed to his feet. “OK. If that’s what you need to do. I’ll just stay here and take care of Ray and try to clear my head.”

“That’s a good idea, Mr. Hamilton. Take it easy, and I’m sure everything will be better in the morning.”

“I hope so,” he muttered. Clearing his throat, he raised his voice and dredged up a weak smile. “Thanks for all your help. I don’t know what we’d do without you right now.”

“Glad to do it.” She walked to the door and stepped out on the porch. “Y’all take care. I’ll see you later.”

Sitting back down, Vernon stared at the phone after she left. He glanced periodically at Ray waving his little arms and legs in the air. What was I going to do? He knew it was something important, but the details eluded him. A fog drifted through his mind; thoughts seemed familiar, but their shapes were obscure and distorted. What did Kateri say? Wasn’t there someone I needed to call? Because I wasn’t going to... “Work,” he blurted. Raymond laughed in his nest of sheets and blankets. “I gotta call work.” He paused as he reached for the handset. “Ethan’s going to love this,” he muttered. But what choice did he have? He couldn’t work in this condition. He wasn’t sure how he was going to take care of his son. Vernon’s eyes slid toward the bedroom. The baby’s movements had slowed. He yawned. Vernon smiled. Cheryl should see this. Where is she? He opened his mouth to call for his wife, then snapped it shut. The fog thickened and swirled with his confusion. Tears leaked down his cheek as memory surfaced. She was gone, of course, along with their little girl. How could he forget that? He watched Raymond drift off to sleep. Vernon stared until his aching shoulder brought his attention around. He frowned at the hand hovering over the telephone. Wasn’t I going to call someone? Somebody important? He puzzled over that until the phone rang.

Startled, his hand jerked back as if the phone had grown scorching hot. It blared at him, demanding an answer even as it rebuked him for making it wait so long. He reached out hesitantly and picked up the handset, drawing it to his ear. “Hello?” His voice sounded hollow and cracked, as if it echoed down a concrete pipe.

“Vern? Is that you?” Concern filled Ethan’s voice from the other end. Machinery banged in the background.

“Um.” Vernon tried to clear his throat. “Yeah.” Better.

“Is everything okay?”

“Yeah. Fine, fine. Just... fine.”

“Well, then, why aren’t you here? You should have clocked in hours ago.” Agitation edged concern out of his tone.

“Hours?” Vernon laughed. “Good one, Ethan. Look, I know, I’m a little late, but...”

“‘A little late’?” Now he sounded angry. “Vern, it’s nearly eleven o’clock. I’m not in the mood to be playing games here.”

“It’s eleven?” Raymond whimpered and squirmed at the near-shout. “You’ve got to be kidding me!”

“Nope.” Concern surfaced again. “Are you sure you’re okay?”

“Not really.” Vernon sighed. “I can’t think. Everything’s just so fuzzy. It’s like someone hit me upside the head with a rubber mallet or something. It’s all just so weird right now with Cheryl gone and everything.”

“It’s okay. I get it. Take the day off. Try to pull yourself together. I’ll come by tonight. How’s that?”

“That’s fine. I appreciate it. I really do.”

There was a pause on the other end, then Ethan spoke in a quiet rush: “Look, Vern, you know you won’t get paid for today, right? I mean, I want to help, but you haven’t been here long enough to accrue any sick leave, and there’s some rules I just can’t break.”

“I know. It’s okay,” Vernon cut him off. “I just appreciate you giving me the time.”

“Alright, then. You take care, and I’ll see you later.”

“See ya.” He set the phone down. In the bedroom, Ray fussed and twisted on the bed. Vernon walked to the door to get a closer look. The boy hadn’t woken up yet, but his brow was furrowed in a frown. Vernon walked to the kitchen.

He found a bottle on the top shelf of the refrigerator. Formula sloshed around the bottom half inside the dark yellow plastic. Vernon grabbed it, shut the door and went to the microwave. He popped the bottle in, punched a few numbers and hit START. He watched it spin a moment. Slapping his forehead, he pulled the microwave open and grabbed the bottle, twisting the top off. Don’t want to melt the nipple, idiot. He slapped the top down on the counter, and the bottle went back in the microwave. Vernon leaned on the counter and listened to the appliance hum. His eyes closed, head resting on the cabinet. He felt like that bottle -- going round and round without actually getting anywhere. And things were getting hotter all the time. How much longer can I keep this up? How long before I break down completely? He let himself drift.


Part III of Chapter 11 coming next week!

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