No, it wasn’t a zombie but he looked like a fresh one might if there were such things. Tony stood – well sorta stood, actually kind a leaned on whatever was handy to brace himself up – wrapped in his sheet. He wasn’t saying anything and his eyes had this kind of vacant look. Reminded me a bit of my own eyes after a week of cramming for final exams … too much caffeine, not enough food, and a general shock that the test was over with but the results were still to come.
I gently stepped under his arm to make him lean on me instead of the counter. He drew back like it hurt. “Come on Tony. Back to bed.”
He briefly closed his eyes but let me lead him easily enough. On the way back to the room he muttered, “Thirsty.”
“I’ll get you some water. You drink that and rest and then I’ll bring you some broth.”
He started to shiver. “Sick.”
He seemed to clinch up and I thought for a moment he was going to vomit. “So sorry … so …”
“Tony. Please don’t do this. Leo told me … you did everything you could including nearly getting yourself killed. No one could ask for more than that.”
He moaned like an old man. “Not enough … not … enough.”
Not knowing what else to say I told him quietly as I helped him to lie back down, “Sometimes life is just like that.”
I left him and then came back with fresh water and some topical pain reliever from my parents’ medicine cabinet. The water helped, I think dehydration is Tony’s most immediate problem. But there was no doubt that he was in pain too.
“Tony, I’d give you something but I don’t know what kind of shape your stomach is in. I don’t know what you have.”
Tony wasn’t answering, the trip to the kitchen had exhausted him. Again I was reminded of the mono my brothers had had. I felt every one of my own pains as I flinched away from the reminder. Intentionally remembering hurt but I forced myself to list the ways my brothers had been affected and how the doctor had told Mom to treat it.
“Drink water. Rest. Vitamins. Rest. Small meals. Rest. And when that is finished get more rest.”
I knew that my brothers could take Tylenol or Ibuprofen for fever or for the aches and pains of mono but I still wasn’t sure whether I should try to get Tony to take any. I looked at the topical ointment in my hand and then told myself I had no choice.
Tony was bruised in odd patterns but as I looked at them some began to make sense. He had some bruises that corresponded with his seatbelt. Those were the worst ones on his chest and abdomen. He was very dark under the eyes but I decided those weren’t really bruises so much as shadows from all of the fatigue. Being unused to seeing Tony with a beard had given the impression that his face was bruised as well but on closer inspection it was simply swollen, especially around his neck and ears.
Around his pits were bruised looking and even in exhausted sleep he held his arms the way I used to when I first started shaving and would get heat rash there in the summer. Gently touching, afraid to tickle him, I instead found very swollen lymph nodes and Tony grimaced in pain and tried to jerk away. Gearing myself up I pulled the sheet down further and knew that there was going to be another painful jumble of lymph nodes and sure enough I could see bruising where his jockies rode up enough for me to see the crease of his legs above his thighs.
I touched and nearly screamed when Tony knocked my hand away and jerked upright in a groan before falling flat on his back again and grimacing.
“OK, that’s sore.”
Gasping Tony said, “Trying to send me to hell where I belong Ragazza?”
I pulled the sheet up over him and said, “Don’t be a doof. You’ve got the same symptoms as mono but I don’t think that’s it … or maybe a type of mono. You haven’t gotten anyone else sick and Ana would certainly have …”
Clarity seem to come to him suddenly. “Where are they? Joey you must be careful … Uncle Nicky …” Too much too quickly and he groaned.
I eased him back down again. “We’ll talk about it later. It’s just you and me now kid so you have to promise me you’re going to get better. You don’t want me to bust your chops do you?”
He was confused … and frustrated because he knew he was confused and missing vital facts. “Shhhhhh. It’s OK Tony. You did everything you could, now you need to let me do everything I can. Don’t fight me, at least not right now. You get all better and we can go at it real good, just like old times.”
I’m not sure he heard what I said. “Your face Ragazza.” He focused and then tried to come out of the bed again. “Who did this? I’ll kill ‘em.” I know he meant to snarl like a lion but he sounded more like a wounded hound dog.
“Too late, he’s gone.”
“Leo?” I shook my head no as I adjusted his pillow. I started wiping his face with cool water to calm him when he gasped, “Bennie?” I shook my head again and put my fingers to his lips to try and stop him from talking. He groaned. “No, no … Uncle Nicky wouldn’t … couldn’t …”
“Shhhhhh Tony. He’s …” I stopped not sure how to say it. “He’s … he’s …”
Tony whispered in Italian, “Insano.”
Tony’s word was full of anguish from remembering how bad his uncle had gotten while on the road. “Yeah, but he’s not here anymore. The whole lot of them left with Leo. It was the only way Tony. I … I didn’t see any other path to take. We’ll talk about it later. Right now just let me do for you OK?”
Still hurting emotionally as much as physically Tony began, “Joey … your folks … I …”
“We’ll talk about that later too. Leo told me everything … or nearly everything. He described it enough for me to know there wasn’t anything you could do. I’ve already told you this once Tony but if you need to keep hearing it from me I’ll keep on telling you again. It wasn’t your fault. I don’t know who to blame right now but it isn’t you. Now I’m gonna … well … touch you and put some of this cream on you to try and help with the bruising and pain. You behave for me ‘cause you’re too big for me to fight with and … and it … well, you just behave so I can stay focused on what I’m supposed to be doing.”
Tony didn’t like it as I’m sure no man would, the feeling of being helpless, but we did come to an understanding though without words to complicate it. The things I would do for him were to take care of his health and not to … er … tease him any. In return he didn’t make it any harder on me than it was all ready. Tony wasn’t a little boy but a grown man and I was heading into territory I’d never been.
By the time I was done there was no question that neither one of us was enjoying it. Every place I touched and rubbed with the ointment made Tony either pale or green. He tried not to move but when I noticed dampness in his eyes and he noticed me noticing I think we were both just about undone. And since I’m no sadist giving him pain with every touch no matter that the end result was supposed to be relief sent me out of the room when I’d finally finished to heave up and puke what little I had in my stomach. He’d finally passed out before I was finished and it cost me a lot to keeping hurting him when he wasn’t awake to chose whether to defend himself or not.
The house was dim because I had never opened the shutters that morning and I pulled the bedroom door shut so I could work without disturbing his already broken sleep. Part of me kept wondering if the family would change their mind and come back, or that some of them would; or even that Leo put them out on the side of the road and they’d have no choice but to make their way back here. Part of me kept saying don’t fall for that thought trap or nothing would ever move forward. It was bad enough trying to come to terms with the fact that the last time I saw my family was the last time I would ever get to see my family. I hadn’t even gotten to say good bye. I tried to remember if I had told them I loved them the last time we’d talk on the phone … had I told them I loved them often enough period.
I stumbled through the kitchen door and nearly broke my neck on the stuff that was piled there by Leo and Bennie. “Oh crud,” I sighed.
Slowly and painfully I started bringing it all inside and setting it anyplace I could find. There were boxes and bags, pieces of luggage, containers of all shapes and sizes. I nearly laughed and subsequently gagged myself on the contents of the stuffy nose that I’d developed while I cried without really letting it all loose. My mother must have filled every piece of Tupperware she owned with stuff from the house … and only about half of it food related. A pitcher had dress socks in it. A salad spinner was full of stuff that I knew for a fact came out of the junk drawer that sat under the kitchen phone. Some of it made sense to me and some of it didn’t.
Finally I finished breaking into everything to see what was what. I stood, surrounded by the flotsam of my family’s lives as well as Tony’s things. In the big picture it wasn’t a lot to represent five people but that was ok, I had enough before me to deal with. It appeared my mother remembered what was important to pack from those early years of moving from place to place. She also knew what was easy enough to leave behind since they were heading towards a fully furnished cabin.
Every day dishes were left behind but Gran’s gravy boat was carefully wrapped in the Chantilly lace table cover and packed inside my great great grandfather’s leather traveling case that held all his worldly goods when he stepped off the boat at Ellis Island. The frou frou sofa pillows were left behind but the sofa cover itself had been used to cushion my mother’s thimble and spoon collections so they wouldn’t rattle. There was a box of heirloom Christmas decorations packed in with rolls of toilet paper and paper towels.
I didn’t know which hurt worse, to stumble through discovering the few bits and pieces of my family’s history my parents had chosen to drag with them from place to place, or the more mundane things like my father’s shaving kit whose smell was so emotionally overpowering I rocked back and forth trying not to fall apart.
Somehow just as bad was trying to decide what to do with my brothers’ sports bags that held their clothes and personal items … including their wallets, each containing the same wrapped condom I had bought them the summer before I left for college after I found them making out with a couple of little tarts behind the basketball court. I don’t know if it had made them think about what they were doing or if they simply bought their own and kept the ones I’d given them as back up. And now I’d never know because I’d been too busy with my own life to make sure my brothers weren’t getting led down the garden path by some girls that would break their hearts. The thought that I wouldn’t have to worry about it ever again was just too much and I gave up.
I crawled to the porch and simply cried. Cried for what seems likes years. Cried until there was nothing left inside to cry with. Then I lay there and watched the stars come out, the stars that always seemed so much brighter and closer at the cabin.
The thunk of two knees hitting the boards beside me had me rolling over and sitting up. “Tony,” I said tired and breathless. “What are you doing up?”
“Don’t know,” he muttered. “House was dark and quiet. Hot. Too freakin’ quiet. There’s no noise out here. It’s like we’re on the moon.”
Sighing I told him, “Hold on to me and we’ll stand up and go inside. And there’s lots of noise if you listen. Listen to those frogs sing for some rain. If we get a cricket in the house it’ll seem loud enough to drive you crazy until you find it and kick it out. There’s wind enough in the trees tonight and the air smells like the frogs might get their wish.”
“Uh,” was all he said.
I got him back to the bed and tried to get him to lie down but he wouldn’t cooperate. “Tony, you promised not to be a pain in my backside.”
After a minute of quiet he said, “Stay with me so I know where you are.”
I nearly said something smart aleck until I realized what it must have cost him to say it. A big man like Tony needing what amounted to a night light. Instead I told him, “OK. Let me lock up and change. Or do you want me to fix you something to eat first?”
“Drank that soup you left me, don’t want nuthin’ else right now except maybe some more water.”
I nodded in the dark. “OK, I’ll fill the pitcher.”
“And … and that salve … it helped.”
I looked at him but knew he wouldn’t ask … maybe couldn’t. “Let me put some more on so you can sleep through the night.”
“You … you don’t have to.”
“I know I don’t have to. I know you aren’t asking. But I’m offering. If it helps.”
After a quiet pause he said, “Sure. OK. S’long as it isn’t a problem.”
I wanted to tell him the problem was trying to pull what he needed or wanted out of him but I let it go. It wasn’t Tony’s fault he was feeling down and trying not to make me feel worse. But looking at those stars reminded me that this life we live isn’t the end. There’s more to it than the breaths we take between our birth and our death. I didn’t have all the answers but the one thing I was absolutely certain of was that I’d see my family again. And that whatever time I had left on this earth I wanted to mean enough so that when I did see them again I was certain I would have as little as possible to be ashamed of.