The Morning After
…in which Elmore lets his twins play in a wonderland.
The fisted blows on the thin front door cruelly woke Elmore. Startled, he suddenly relived for the hundredth time a rooftop tumble, a long fall, and a moment his body slammed hard against the ground. All night long, he’d fallen from a roof and broken, over and over and over. The bad re-runs and his throbbing rib had left him mostly sleepless.
The flimsy two-bedroom Rogers house, cold and still inside, amplified every knock.
Elmore pushed up from the sheets with a painful start.
The pillow case stuck to his ruined mouth. As he raised his head, the cloth ripped away with a strange moist noise. Two of his stitches opened, stinging. A little fresh blood trickled down Elmore’s chin.
He didn’t remember hurting this bad even when a fever burned up his kidneys in Iraq, his temperature nearly as high as the afternoon desert, all those days in the hospital barracks trying to recover from his wounds. Mosul had been bad, but at least he could sleep. Thank God for drugs. Thank God for delirium.
Here in Lafayette, every muscle and bone hurt when he breathed. They hurt when he didn’t breathe too.
Elmore had always been a man who slept without his clothes. This morning, Christmas Eve of his twenty-ninth year, he struggled out of bed still dressed in yesterday’s dirty jeans and jacket.
The pounding on the door seemed louder.
Elmore peeled off the windbreaker, stiff with his own dry blood. Somehow, through pain so harsh it made ugly little flashbulbs seltzer his field of vision, he stripped away his long-sleeved flannel work shirt, then both undershirts, and finally somehow even eased his way out of the dirty Wranglers.
He caught his breath as he held to the door jamb, his torso taped and bandaged. The creature he confronted in the mirror looked like a mummy in a horror movie. After another unsteady second, Elmore made a clumsy grab for his sweats.
The floor felt like maple-colored ice beneath his bare feet, a polished brown ice river. It ran in a frozen course from the bedroom to the front door, where some large indistinct figure behind one small frosted diamond-shaped viewing pane pounded a fist.
Bang! Bang! Bang!
Mary’s tiny, still-asleep voice floated from the bedroom. Elmore grimaced. With all this damned fool pounding, both those kids would be up and begging for early breakfast.
Elmore limped to the door, punching his way into a baggy sweatshirt. The trip seemed to take hours. He hurt everywhere, and he trembled with cold.
Condensation obscured the face in the door’s porthole. The murky silhouette of a baseball cap suggested a tall thin duck.
Elmore had to yank the knob twice with his good hand to noisily unstick the cheap plywood door from its jamb.
Dick Wragg leered in. The neighbor who lived just the other side of the adjoining wooded lot stood mid-knock, one gloved fist still in the air. His six-year-old son, Timmy Wragg, stood bundled beside him. Both neighbors wore baseball caps. Both wore green hunting coats. They looked like a big pea and a little pea.
Wragg whistled, his eyes widening.
“Holy crap, Rogers. What happened to you? Mr. Wood must throw one helluva Christmas party for his roofers…”
So Wragg knew about Mr. Wood. Word got around. Ugh.
Elmore almost said the first three words that leaped to mind – Kiss my ass! – but that little boy stood there. Only the tip of Timmy’s white nose and two solemn eyes showed from the winter gear.
Elmore considered Timmy an OK kid, for a boy with such an obnoxious, jerk-wad daddy.
“You look like what the cat dragged in, Rogers. I mean after the cat swallowed it and shit it back out.”
Elmore flinched at the language, glanced down at the little boy. He worked to unstick his swollen lips, the way he’d worked to unstick the front door. The open stitches stung a little.
“Mewwy Crithmath, Thimmy.”
Wragg snorted, a laugh worrisomely like a wet sneeze.
Elmore knew that Wragg really could care less what had happened to him or how bad he looked. Or how merry his Christmas. A boastful ex-Navy SEAL, Wragg liked to tell his own Iraq war stories in great and vivid detail over a table crowded with what he called “dead soldiers” – empty Pabst Blue Ribbons. Elmore had this distinct pleasure one afternoon after first moving to the country with the kids.
That would only happen once. Elmore gave up drunks. He didn’t like men with mean streaks.
How could men in the same war hold two impressions so different?
‘See that face, Timmy?” Wragg instructed his wide-eyed son. “See what happens, boy, when you lose a fight? It’s a whole lot better when you win the fight, ain’t it?”
Timmy looked truly horrified by the sight in the doorway, and Elmore all at once felt embarrassed to appear this way, stammering out words, unwashed, scaring the daylights out of a six-year-old.
“Whath you bithneth, Wagg?”
Every word took Elmore on a short internal trip to the planet of pain.
“Well sir,” Wragg said. “It’s snowed all over the world yesterday, Elmore Wogers.” Wragg snickered after his mockery. “Maybe you noticed?”
Elmore waited, no comment.
“Timmy asked me if your younguns might want to come out and help us make a giant white big-ass snowman. We already got one started in the front yard. Hell, we might make a whole damned army of giant white big-ass snowmen.”
Elmore suddenly felt dizzy, disoriented. It took a moment – something wasn’t right with his eyes yet – but sure enough, out past the two visitors blocking his doorway, he saw just how incredibly much whiteness had bandaged the whole world.
Oh yeah. It snowed on Alabama.
The sight did amaze.
It gleamed, beyond beautiful.
During the night, some elements of an ice storm must also have blown in with the snow. Elmore’s panel truck had turned into a big white ice cube with wheels. A pecan tree fanned out jeweled white branches, peacock style, against a sky that couldn’t decide yet on a color. A little avalanche, like feathers from a busted pillow, tumbled suddenly through the green needles of an evergreen across the road, and a crow flapped out of the trees cawing in alarm.
Otherwise, it sounded so… quiet. Like everyone on earth had all gone deaf at once.
Snow! A white Christmas… or the day before, anyway! In Alabama!
Wragg was right, actually. Elmore had mostly forgotten yesterday’s weather adventures until now, until he saw the snow and twinkling ice with his own eyes in the daylight.
Yesterday and last night had simply been a blur of pain and medication.
Elmore couldn’t even really remember driving Will and Mary home. Should I go check on them?
Wragg ended the reverie.
“Here I am, 33 years, the age of Jesus Christ his own self… and probably a whole lot better lookin,” Wragg announced, elbowing Timmy to punctuate the joke. “You know, it ain’t snowed on Christmas Eve ever in my whole lifetime. And now… just look at it, Rogers! Look!”
Elmore felt warmth against his leg. He glanced down. The top of a little red head bobbed there. Mary, wide-eyed, snot-nosed, gawked out past the guests. The beckoning winter wonderland hypnotized her.
Down the hallway thumped harder footsteps. That would be Will, charging the door with the stealth of a small rhino.
Did children ever walk?
“Can we go out and play in it, Daddy?”
Mary looked up. Her innocent face pierced Elmore. Sometimes, in some angles of the face or tricks of the light, Mary looked like her mother so much, a carbon copy, just with the red hair instead of Kelly’s summer-night black.
“Daddy,” Mary pleaded again, “let us help Timmy make a snowman?”
“An ARMY of snowmans!” Will yelled, now with them. In a trance of greed, he leaped up and down, his eyes on the snowy yard, staring past his dad and sister and the Wraggs. He wore a Marshall Tucker Band T-shirt. Nothing else, not a stitch.
Mary’s green eyes remained on her dad, begging without a word. Elmore didn’t ever like to say no to those eyes. And he didn’t see that weird fever light in them anymore. He might be wrong, but Mary looked fine… if you didn’t count that shiny running Rudolph nose.
Elmore placed the rough palm of his good hand – the had without the big ugly stiff bandage – against his little girl’s forehead. From the way Mary’s expression changed, he must have had a worried look. Then, Elmore realized that a drop of blood had fallen from his split top lip onto her blue nightgown.
It was Will. His broad smile displayed missing top teeth.
“Daddy, you blooded on Mary.”
Mary seemed not to care. “I feel better-good, Daddy. I won’t get the fever. I won’t. I promise.”
She didn’t feel hot. She didn’t feel cool. So Elmore nodded yes, yes, OK. Go play.
It hurt his neck to nod the simple gesture.
Another ruby of blood fell, this time from his chin. This ambitious drop had made its way from the unstitched lip down through a week-old briar patch of whiskers.
“Good God, Rogers. Take this. You’re a messed up man.”
Wragg flagged a big red bandana out of some crevice of his winter outfit. He offered it, nodded. Take it, go on...
Elmore wiped his chin instead on the thumb bandage.
A bloody little face laughed up from the white gauze. Elmore suppressed a shudder.
“OK, they can play outthide, Wagg. Just let me geth a bite of food in ‘em firsth. I’ll thend ‘em out when they’vthe had thomething hot for breakfasth.”
Elmore turned to his kids.
“You wanth to blay out in ith? Go geth all your clotheth on. All your clotheth. But not Thunday clotheth. Play clotheth. Buth firth we eath.”
Now, Elmore noticed how silent – maybe shocked – the child behind Wragg had been. For sure, Timmy Wragg stood there. Timmy for “Timid,” Elmore thought. Tiny Timmy. A kid scared mute by two grown-ups in conversation. Or maybe by drops of blood syruping down a grown man’s chin on Christmas Eve morning.
Well, go ahead and hide back there behind your papa, son.
I’m scared of blood too.
Elmore boiled water in an aluminum pot with a wobbly handle. He poured in a snowfall of grits, shaking them straight from the clever little metal spout on the cardboard box. He thumbed in two last squares of butter left over from some morning meal three weeks ago at the Lafayette Waffle House.
Mary and Will bundled up like little snowmen themselves. They charged into the kitchen at just the right time.
Elmore sprinkled sugar into the steaming grits, then set two bowls down on a battle-scarred table.
Breakfast looked mighty good. For kids, anyway.
Lord knows that Elmore didn’t feel like putting hot grits on his stitched-up tongue. Maybe he could find a cool can of peaches in the cabinet.
Just as the children clanged down their empty grit-speckled bowls, Elmore produced a surprise from the oven – cinnamon toast. Charred edges of bread smoked a little, but the melted sun of butter on each slice and the mouthwatering fragrance of sugar and spice on top made the treat “highly edible,” as Elmore often told the kids to convince them to eat. Well… to convince Mary. Will always had an appetite.
“Here’th your MRE,” Elmore said. “Meal ready to eath. So eath.”
Will, of course, had gobbled up his own bowl of grits, then half the bowl Mary didn’t finish. With his mouth still so full he could barely chew, Will snatched up a slice of cinnamon toast in each hand and bounded for the door.
That boy wanted to play in the snow.
Who could blame him?
Elmore had a flash, from nowhere, of his own boyhood days. He could start feeding at dawn. He could eat without stopping all day long. He could eat more when it got dark, and then he would beg his mama, back when she was still alive, for a snack at the stroke of midnight. She would boil and peel an egg, and Elmore would chew it happily, even without salt and pepper, while his head rested on his soft pillow.
In the morning, he’d wake to ruins of fragmented egg shell on a cracked white saucer by the bed. Humpty Dumpty. The fatal fall.
These days, they’d chopper Humpty out to a field hospital.
Maybe they could save that old egg, Elmore thought. Maybe put Humpty Dumpty back together. They did it for me…
Where was that evac helicopter this morning? Elmore wondered. Jesus, he hurt everywhere.
“Daddy, can we go out now?” Will shook the house jumping, up and down. “You said! You said!”
Sometimes – and now was one such time – Elmore believed that Will and Mary both had, in miniature, the serious features of old pioneer ancestors that stared out of faded photographs in a Rogers family Bible in their one bookcase. He could look at his children and see alive in their little faces generations of Rogers, plus features of the Bellisles, their mother’s good-looking Mobile Bay people.
“PLEASE, Daddy?” pleaded Mary. “You said!”
She had already slipped half down from her metal kitchen chair. Mary really did appear to be wearing every stitch of clothing she owned. The sweater on the outside of it all made her look like a ball of pink yarn.
“Yeth, yeth. Go geth on your pig coatth!”
“Pig coats! Daddy said pig coats!” yelled Will, crazy with delight.
“Pig coats!” echoed Mary, her little face bright with … what?
Elmore gave a grunt and made a pig squeal noise (it hurt his side like everything) and set off on a short hobbling run to chase the children.
“Whoth afwaid ob da Pig Pad PIG?” he yelled … or what passed for a yell in his condition.
The kids squealed and fled, headed for the room they shared, hurrying for coats. They ran like they understood the snow would soon disappear, a miracle that could be gone in the blink of a golden sunny eye. One day, then gone.
Elmore picked up two last pieces of hot cinnamon toast, each dripping brown sweet spice.
“Take theeth to Thimmy. He lookth hungry.”
The children stampeded back through the kitchen. Their noise sent the tortoise-shell cat, Molly, scrambling from the bedroom in terror in front of them, claws noisily clicking the linoleum tile floor.
Elmore felt himself totter.
The kitchen suddenly seemed hot as an oven. He squenched his eyes to stop the spin of pinewood cabinets and used appliances, a whirlpool around his throbbing head. He heard the high-pitched whistle of a tea kettle.
He didn’t own a tea kettle.
“Thoath! Thimmy! Thoath!”
Will bounced impatiently, twisting the knob on the front door and somehow still holding a piece of toast in each hand. Another half-eaten piece hung from his mouth. He resembled a small Michelin Man, a balloony bundle.
Mary trampolined alongside her brother. She made Elmore think suddenly of one of those nested Russian dolls, one layer of clothes, another layer, another, and on down to the thin little girl inside.
She yelled “Toads! Timmy! Toads!” and laughed hysterically at her own joke.
“Y’all,” Elmore said wearily, head still spinning, “be careful. Come in when you geth cold. You do whah Mr. Wragg tellth you.”
Will lived for moments like this. He cocked his shrewd little head, and that old-soul Rogers’ face stared out from under the skin of his very young one.
“What if Mr. Wragg tells us to throw up?”
Mary shrieked with excitement.
“What if he tells us to blow up… and never grow up?” Rhyme was Mary’s thing right now.
“Well,” considered Elmore Rogers. “I gueth if Wragg theth ith, you phetter throw up and nebber gwow up.”
“You sound funny, Daddy. I love you!”
Beautiful little Mary!
How did he live without his kids those long months after the judge gave them to Kelly in the divorce? How did any parent ever get out of bed after something like that happened?
The truth? Sometimes, he hadn’t…
The door flew wide. A cold headwind whipped through. The Rogers twins burst out the opening and leaped off the small snowy slab porch. They landed in a snowdrift. For effect, Will and Mary rolled over and over in the light four inches, screaming with happiness, laughing their heads off.
They scrambled to their feet dusted in sugar. Sugar-cookie children.
“Y’all! Come on!”
Mr. Wragg yelled from the front yard of the next house over, past a fifty-foot neck of woodland. He flailed big green quilted arms.
“We got world-class snowmen under construction over here!”
Where the hell did Wragg get a green snowsuit? Elmore wondered for a moment. Is that fire department gear?
He second-guessed himself about letting those beautiful kids get close to Wragg.
But the wind whipped a new explosion of snow through the doorway and into the house, and Elmore grimly closed the door and limped across the melting flakes that dusted his floor like sugar on the kids’ toast.
He made it to his still-warm bed.
He lay there for – how long?
Hours or days or years, a pained convalescence.
He remembered falling from the high roof.
He remembered So hard.
Things broke inside.
He woke to sharp reports outside.
Not the front door this time.
For a dazed moment, Elmore flashed back to Mosul.