Mr. Hodges says that not enough people come to see him and that those people who don’t should get their hides ready for a slow roast in hell. The nurse says he’s rude to put it like that, but Mr. Hodges argues that dying men don’t need manners. What can you even say to that?

I guess the fact that I come over reminds Mr. Hodges of how Billy isn’t coming over. When I say that Billy’s not around, people’s facial expressions turn complicated, and they say things like, “So he took off? He snapped?” They say it like they’ve been waiting for him to do it for a long time.

The truth is, Billy is in Louisville, he has a job and a house with a big yard, and his wife is already pregnant with their second child. Billy is solid – not snapping, breaking, cracking, or otherwise disintegrating. He just doesn’t want to see his dad. Or else he wants to see him, but feels like he can’t. He won’t say either way.

So it’s been pointed out to me that I’m not necessarily the one Mr. Hodges wants to see, but the old man’s grip on reality isn’t as tight as it used to be, so certain things he can let slide. There is also the fact that Mr. Hodges says that “a good-looking woman who knows Billy” has been to see him.

“She’s a sly one,” Mr. Hodges murmurs, eyes closed, facing the wall. “Slinks around everywhere. Her dresses look like water. I like her.”

The woman sounds awfully like the bitch Billy left me for. I’m not staking her out – but I’m staking her out. 

Billy has a secret Facebook account that he logs into to talk to me. His wife wouldn’t like it if she knew that we spoke. She thinks it’s in bad taste for a married man to be friendly with a woman he’s had his dick in. I want to respect that, but who else is going to give Billy updates on Mr. Hodges?

People assume that I know about Billy and the war, so they ask things like, “So what was up with Billy and the war?” but I don’t know what to tell them. Admitting that he didn’t confide in me is embarrassing, but he had his friends for that. I’d show up, and there would be some dude on the porch with Billy, the two of them having a long conversation full of terms I couldn’t understand, and the dude would cut his appraising eyes at me and look back at Billy as he said hello, and what he was really saying was, “So this is the one, huh,” and maybe he’d check out my ass and give Billy a not-entirely-surreptitious thumbs up, and maybe he wouldn’t, but my point is, those were the guys he really talked to.

In light of that, it’s strange to be doing all of this talking to Billy now, even though it’s only online. “Hey,” he writes me at 2 a.m. “I know you’re awake. Did you see him today? What’s up.”

What’s up is that it’s too hot, the AC is busted, the imprisoning smell of the neighbor’s gardenias has gotten into everything, and I want to be somewhere with a man, in a bar, on the beach, my head secure against a shoulder, but instead I’m in here talking to my ex about his dying father. Maybe I’ve run out of men. Maybe this is it, “check-out time,” as my mother used to say.

“He was in and out today,” I write. “He recognized me and then he didn’t. We had a conversation about the Carolina Panthers that made me think he doesn’t know what year it is.”

I don’t know what sort of shit went down between Billy and Mr. Hodges – some kind of property dispute that grew out of all proportion, from what I heard, though Billy wouldn’t confirm for certain. It’s like Billy’s war baggage, he never wanted me to carry it. Except that you can’t help carrying someone’s baggage once you let them inside various parts of your body, not to mention into your life, or so I’ve discovered through trial and error. Not talking about it only means that you can’t name the weight that’s on you.

I wonder if he’s more honest with his wife. Then I remember his secret mission to keep tabs on his dad via me without her knowing. When I think about the inside of Billy’s mind I think of a ship’s hull, groaning on the high seas, full of watertight compartments inside. There are things in there only I know about, and, I’m guessing, things only his wife knows about, and then of course there’s the bitch he left me for.

I think about her a lot. I fantasize about her, even. I wonder whether or not she sucked his dick slow and deep, exactly how he liked, or did she do it even better, could she take it on all fours, a position Billy loved and I only tolerated, because, let’s face it, he’s big, too big for me to handle from that angle, and did he love watching her tits bounce too, and what did he call her in bed, and did her pull her hair, long and caramel-colored in all of her social media photographs (bet she doesn’t even dye it), or was that something he only did with me. I realize that this isn’t healthy. It’s been four years, if he’s moved on from her, I should definitely have moved on from her.

Well, I thought I did. And then Mr. Hodges started dying.

Sly, slinking – it does sound like her, sounds like she’s been around to see the old man at least once. Lots of helpful people at the hospice, but I feel weird asking them to keep track of his visitors for me. I’m not exactly a relation. They all know me as “Mr. Hodges’ friend.” What else am I going to say to them? “Oh yeah, I used to sleep with his son after he came back from overseas, I thought it was for real, but he didn’t. The son, I mean. Not the father.”

The people who knew Billy and me, they always said it didn’t add up. Of all the men to go crazy for, to be fucked up about, why did you go and pick him, they said, sometimes even to my face. Even the ones who worshipped Billy as a true-blue hero and were always falling over themselves to thank him for his service and pay for his beer.

The thing about the Billy of those days was that he made me feel safe and clean. He was direct, and in that directness was a kind of shamelessness, and so next to him I felt no shame. And I have always been one of those people who are ashamed of something they can’t name. Ashamed of existing, maybe. But these are not things you should bring up unless you want to kill the vibe.

Online, Billy wants to know if his dad has mentioned his mother at all. He’s in that mode I know so well. The I’m-in-pain-but-won’t-say-it mode. That property dispute of theirs, it ultimately had something to do with the mother, who’d died far too young. I know he wants to tell me about it, but he’s in lockdown. I’d tried to fight his lockdowns when we first got together, but I gave up quickly. “Quitter,” as per one of my mother’s more astute pronouncements.

I am deep into my second glass of wine, and so I write, “No, he hasn’t.” Will it take a mention of the mother for Billy to come down? I don’t know. Then I write, “Look, Bill, I need to know why you dumped me the way you did.”

It happened quickly, was as disorienting as a car crash (I’ve been in a number of those). Everything’s OK one second, nothing is OK the next. I stumbled through the following months. Made some bad choices. Went on the rebound with a guy who raised a hand to me. I know Billy didn’t mean for it to work out that way, but there’s knowing and then there’s caring.

He’s seen my message and isn’t replying. I pour myself a third glass. Four years is an epoch. Four years is nothing. Some years sit on your shoulders heavier than others. Billy ought to know.

“Do we have to get into it now,” he finally writes back. He’s got nerve. It’s what I always admired about him.

“Yeah, Bill, we kind of do. I mean, you asked me to look in on your dad. I figure I can also ask you for something. An explanation. No?”

Mr. Hodges reminds me so much of his son that it’s almost laughable. The same craggy handsomeness, the same brusque manner. Blunted by sickness and old age, it still it occasionally makes itself known, especially when they bring him some meal he knows he won’t be able to get down. It’s like seeing Billy forty years from now, in a future we won’t get to share. It hurts, but the pain is roundabout, it gets at you from the side, it hugs the walls as it makes its way toward you.

“Look, I seriously, truly never meant to hurt you, it just wasn’t working out, and it needed to end,” so begins Billy’s long non-answer.

Yeah, it was pretty obvious to me that it wasn’t working out after I’d come over as I always did and the stuff I kept at his place was in a box, neatly labeled with my name. He took care to expunge all traces of me, to hand me back to myself, here you go, girl, thanks but no thanks. Even my extra box of tampons was in there. I had sat on the porch steps for a while holding that box, feeling my face burn as if I’d been slapped.

“You know that one day, some man is going to do that to your daughter, right?” I write him now.

“So I’ll be there for her when it happens,” he writes back immediately. A subtle dig at my own mostly absent father. It’s been years, but Billy’s as good as deflection as ever.

“Why her? I mean, the chick you dumped me for.”

“Jesus, I don’t know. Seriously. It just happened. I didn’t want to hurt you. I thought I owed you a clean ending.” A clean kill, I think now.

“Maybe it was a bad idea to ask you to visit my dad?” He writes. “Maybe it came off like I’m kind of using you or something? But you’re a literal five-minute drive from his hospice. I thought it would be easy.”

A literal five-minute drive. I have to admit, I thought he had a different, possibly even profound reason. It’s embarrassing, but there it is. Have I learned anything about anything in these last few years? Apparently not.

“Look, it’s OK, whatever,” I write. “I like the old man. I honestly don’t mind.” He believes me, or pretends to.

I’m drunk, so I go out on the deck and look at the moon. People like to get sentimental about the moon, but it’s battered by asteroids in a way that really ought to remind us what has happened and will happen again to our own planet. Staring at the moon is kind of like staring at death and annihilation and the cruel randomness of space. Billy said that to me once. On our first and only official date, before he took me home and fucked my brains out.

I remember Billy’s old house, the one he inherited from his dead mother. It had a proper dining room, with a nice table – honest-to-God antique mahogany. Billy kept a collection of random things on that table – files and footballs and basketballs and tennis rackets and more files and unused novelty picture frames that lit up and still had the smiling pictures of commercial models that inevitably looked better than any pictures of real people you might want to put in there. It was all stuff that should’ve gone into the garage, but the garage was where Billy kept his guns.

What does the topography of his life look like now? Facebook has given me some clues – baby blankets, sunsets, potted plants, a fancy knotted rope chandelier shining down on a table flanked by friends and laden with food, a dog that curls up on his feet. I’m not jealous or anything. If you’ve ever cared about someone, you don’t begrudge them happiness. I found that out through trial and error too.

All I’m saying is that he could have had that with me. I can do potted plants and sunsets, no problem. But you need to be chosen for the task, you need to be picked for the team, and what he picked me for instead was sex and getting take-out and decompressing and drinking and more sex and conversation and sex, sex, sex, and while those things are good things too, it still leaves me with an airy, hollow feeling between my ribs when I think about it.

I’ve known men who were ashamed of desire. Men who thought that wanting a woman dented them, made them weak somehow. “You know how to pick some real winners,” was my mother’s verdict. Billy wasn’t like that. We understood each other on an animal level, like two creatures who met in the woods at night and locked eyes and understood whatever it was they were supposed to understand about each other. “You smell like home,” he told me once when he was drunk and his big head was resting on my shoulder. “You taste like home.” Maybe it wasn’t like a goddamn Shakespeare sonnet, but it wasn’t nothing. “Of course you couldn’t keep him,” my mother’s always saying in my head. “You’re not the type who keeps much.”

Like you, ma. Just like you.

It’s not like my life is a referendum on which men want me and which do not. It revolves around empty spaces instead. Around absences. And sure enough, when you’re young, you think men will take care of that for you. “What are men good for besides filling holes?” – an old joke of my mother’s. She’d say it to her friends and think I couldn’t understand.

Most of my childhood memories of my mother revolve around her drinking cocktails on cheap furniture, saying things children shouldn’t hear. I’m not mad at her for it, or anything. My dad was a jerk even by the most unbiased accounts, and she could’ve fucked up way worse than she ultimately did.

There are many things I want to ask Billy’s woman, the one who slinks around the hospice when I’m not there. Did Billy make her happy? Why did they split up? Did he do that thing where he smelled her back in the morning, trailing his nose down her spine? Did he talk to her about me? Did he talk to her about Afghanistan? Was I right to suspect that he cheated on me with her before dumping me? Does she ever feel sad for no obvious reason? Did her parents love her?

Those last two questions are ones I’d also like to ask my mother, if I was sure she wouldn’t retort sarcastically or else launch into a long speech about how much she’d sacrificed for me. She lives near the beach now with her third husband, they go to the same buffet all the time, they have a small, trembling dog. I drive over sometimes, my mother reads my tarot cards by the light of a seashell lamp, and is vague and diplomatic about what she sees in the cards, always mentioning a “great love” in a “distant future.” How distant? She doesn’t know or else won’t tell.

I haven’t said anything to her about my trips to see Mr. Hodges. When Billy dumped me, my mother had, weirdly enough, been on my side. She still only refers to him as “that shitstain.” If she knew I was spending time with his dying father, she’d pitch a fit. “That shitstain even fooled my tarot,” she will say on occasion. “Positive cards, pathetic outcome. And how dare he put your stuff in a box with your name on it.”

According to social media, the bitch with the caramel hair lives a good hour away now. I guess these trips to the hospice must be pretty important to her. I’m pretty sure that Billy got rid of her to make room for the woman he wound up marrying – I wonder if he did it as suddenly as when he got rid of me. I don’t want to know these things so I can gloat. I just want to know if there is one other person on the planet who can understand what I went through back then.

I’m not going to lie, I’ve fantasized about finding out that this chick isn’t actually a bitch. I’ve fantasized about bonding with her, going on a road trip together, doing drunk karaoke, having an unexpected friendship of the sort people have in forgettable but somewhat uplifting comedies. Maybe we’ll find out we’re more similar than different – a distinct possibility, since we were both dumped by the same man. At least I hope he dumped her. If she left him, it would be too much.

“You didn’t want the things I wanted,” Billy wrote last night. “Like, when I first came back, it worked. But then it didn’t.” It has dawned on me that maybe I was his rebound. A rebound from the war we never talked about, I guess. It’s not a thing he’d say himself, but the evidence is there. All those hours he spent immersing himself in me. Hours of hibernating, floating. Looking back on it, squirming and cringing in the harsh light of the now, I think it must’ve made me feel pretty important. Of course the outcome on that one was going to be pathetic, ma.

It’s even hotter the next day, and I rally from the depths of my hangover and force myself to drive over to the hospice, because I have a day off and because I’m somehow certain that the bitch who may not be a bitch will be there. “Hey,” I’ll tell her. “Do you want to grab a coffee or maybe something stronger?” And she’ll have a worried look on her pretty face, like, isn’t that Billy’s old girlfriend, but then I’ll say something like, “Death, huh? It really makes you see what’s important.” She will have to agree, and we will go from there.

Mr. Hodges sits turned toward the light, which really brings out the gray in his skin. He’s awake, but his eyes are closed.

“So how about them Panthers, Mr. Hodges?” I say once I settle in.

“Football season doesn’t start for months.”

“I know, I know, just seeing if you’re here today.”

“I’m here. Where else would I be? It smells like damn spinach in here, even though they’re telling tall tales about how it’s not on the menu.”

We go back and forth like that for a while. A lot of people have told me that I need to foster some kind of reconciliation between Billy and Mr. Hodges, some meeting where they cry and hug it out in the end, but what are the chances of that? And anyway, as someone who came from a screwed-up family, I try to give people from other screwed-up families space to be themselves.

“The woman you told me about the other day – has she come around since then?” I ask.

Mr. Hodges is silent for a while. His throat makes a clicking noise, like a bird’s. Perched on the edge of darkness, that one.

“The woman you…”

“Yeah, yeah, she’s come around,” he interrupts. “She’s here a lot.”

“Well, what do you guys talk about?”

“Oh we just bullshit, mostly.”

I’m looking at him in his sad, neat room, and remembering seeing a woman collapse in a mall parking lot, right outside of one of those warehouse-like discount shoe stores. Imagine – going to look for a good deal on a pair of pumps, nothing too fancy, maybe a leopard print to brighten up your office outfits, and falling down and never getting up again. There were people next to her, giving her first aid, and her arms were flopping around, and Billy kind of took my head and pressed it against his chest and told me not to look, but I peeked out anyway.

There was something unfair about dying in such an unremarkable, anonymous spot. I told Billy as much later, after we’d gone home and read on the news that she had been pronounced dead at the scene. “What’s fair about death anyway,” he said, and I haven’t forgotten how his eyes looked like then.

“So what does the woman look like?” I ask Mr. Hodges.

He smiles without opening his eyes, his tired skin scrunching upward. “Oh, she’s a good-looking one, she’s a woman I’d… Well, you know. She’s got these simple dresses that cling in the right places. I don’t think she notices. There’s charm in that.”

Great, I think. Great. Not only is she still fucking gorgeous in person, she’s also fucking unassuming.

“She smells warm. Like… laundry laid out in the sun. Know that kind of smell?”

“Sure.”

“She’s a nice girl. Tells me stories. Anecdotes. We don’t talk about Bill much, but I think she’ll convince him to come around eventually.”

That part pisses me off. I should be the one brokering that damn reconciliation. I should be the one – but I guess she’ll steal that from me too, in the end.

I feel like shit, but I have to keep pressing him. “Can you tell me more about her?”

“Well,” he pauses for a moment, and in the silence, I can hear his laborious breath, the struggle of the body to maintain itself, to gain another day, another hour. “She wore a real funny outfit the other day. Red dress. Orange sneakers. I mean, I don’t mind a woman in sneakers. I just miss high heels sometimes. The sound the make on the floor so you can hear a woman coming. My wife, she…” He trails off, and opens his eyes and looks at his circumstances and seems surprised by them.

“I know what you mean,” I tell him.

I stay with him for an hour, talking gentle nonsense, as we usually do, and then I go outside and the laughter I’ve had to bottle up pushes out of me so fast that I end up laughing and crying at the same time. A nurse walking by gives me a worried look, thinking I must be hysterical. But I’m not hysterical. Or maybe I am.

Mr. Hodges has described the outfit that I wore to see him the previous time I was there. The slinking woman who smells disarmingly like laundry is me. I’m the fairy tale a dying man is telling himself in the absence of good stories.

I don’t know what to do or how to feel, so I sit on the bench for a while, letting the heat eat away at me. The sky is an overwhelming blue, the sun so bright that it makes the world run together. Oh great and terrible world, I think. Here you are, confounding me again. One day you’ll confound me to death.

I should’ve asked Billy more questions when we were together, I also think. I should’ve been more generous. Not to make him stay, or anything – just generosity for generosity’s sake. The thing I was raised to believe I couldn’t afford. I don’t know why, but it feels particularly ridiculous to me just now, the great emotional poverty of my life. Like a drab but clingy dream that I’d mistaken for the real thing.

It won’t make much of a difference, I know it now. Who am I to pull a tide in the right direction? I feel the futility in my fingers even as I type the words on my phone. Futility and guilt, because it’s not as if I have any business telling people what to do. No business whatsoever, but here I go anyway. Watch me. “Hi again,” I write. “I think it’s time for you to make the trip.”

I press send, and I sit, and I wait for his reply.

***

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6 thoughts on “Dress Like Water

  1. Oh that’s good. What a clever end. You do desperate, complicated hope very well. Balancing the glass half full readers with the pessimists perfectly.

  2. I probably don’t know/think much about the elderly, because I definitely didn’t see the twist coming. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes, because Mr. Hodges never strikes you as the type who would have lots of visitors.

    The story of Billy and the narrator struck me as the perfect example of people’s need for mutual validation. Except Billy moved on from it, in a fucked-up way, but he moved on. If you look at the way the narrator talks about her family and family in general, you see how her relationship with Billy is a twisted funhouse mirror reflection of her relationship with her parents (the absent father weighs on this story), and the way this is told is straight up brilliant. The line about “emotional poverty” will stay with me for a long time. Congrats, Nat. You turned another corner with this one.

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