Lewis (part two)
“You’re one of those…” Ray cast an arm towards the Spaulding property, not remembering the name that might be this stranger’s. A rail fence edged where the hill dipped into Spaulding’s hollow. When the farmhouse had renters, there had been a pony, Ray always seeing it hang its head, sag the barbed wire, stretch its nose to browse the other side.
“Yeah, I come back.” He gave Ray his hand. “My name’s Joshua. I got a little camper trailer I put up where they tore the house down. I don’t know what they was thinkin. They was gettin rent for it.”
“Bee in the bonnet.”
“That sign been up every time I come past for a couple years now. You ever see anyone out to look?”
“Nope,” Ray said.
Joshua grinned. He and Ray both laughed. Joshua smacked Ray on the shoulder, guiding him, shooting a look at the outhouse as they shuffled by. Once they got past the split limb, and the roots knuckling bare ground under the oak tree, there was room enough to tread up the porch steps.
“You here to look in on Mrs. Lewis?”
Ray thought he’d leave the job to Joshua, if the Spauldings’ squatter said he was.
“Looked in through the glass a couple times, and she ain’t anyplace I can see. But you and me go on inside now.”
Their shoes cracked acorn shells, Joshua’s high-tops leading Ray’s sneakers. Joshua grabbed the rusting handle, and with another grin, swung open the screen. The front knob was tortoiseshell porcelain, didn’t even catch, the lock an inside bolt, as Ray knew from those few times he’d set foot in her living room.
“Just puttin my head in.”
But just to say this to Ray, he held back. Then Joshua twisted the knob and unstuck the door from the carpeting it snagged on.
Letting his new friend do the yelling, Ray slipped in too. The room had a chill, faded into the blue sofa, the rust rug, the shiny drapes open on their traverse rod. A smell. Of old smells settled together…some cellar to it, and frying oil, dirty bathroom and wood smoke, perfume or the sweet odors they put in dish soap and toilet paper.
“Hey, ma’am, Mrs. Lewis!” Ray tapped the bedroom door.
“You let me check that bedroom,” Joshua said. “See if she got a basement. Could’ve took a fall.”
Ray stepped into the kitchen. He inched to have a look… Though she lay there, between the red metal cabinet under the sink, and the metal-legged table with the red top. He eyed the window, bending slow to his knees. The table and counter had dead wasps all over.
Her housecoat was heaving, taut on fat round shoulders; she breathed as an old person breathes, labored in unconsciousness.
“Nothing to do with that branch,” Joshua said. “Broke out a window, but the rug was dry. I can get a couple panes of glass, replace that…barn down there got lots of old junk. Clean up.” He laughed. “Clean up all them.”
Something came pattering down over Ray’s back. Joshua crunched foot-to-foot past the sink, walking on insect shells, and crouched to look Ray in the face.
“Come on. We can get her in that bed.”
Ray had a nice wireless phone, from Mary Anne, and hadn’t brought it with him. He never remembered the battery, and had to charge it anytime he wanted to make a call.
“Need an ambulance,” he said.
“I’m gonna get the heavy end, and you get the legs.”
At this, if he had been in some way contending with Joshua, he gave in. They turned her, to carry her face up, and she gagged out a stream of spit. She coughed as they hefted her round the stove. She did not come to.
The closet was standing open…probably it had been. Ray saw that Mrs. Lewis kept blankets stacked on the shelves inside. They lowered her to the corded spread.
She had no phone of her own that Ray could see, nothing much on the bedstand but religious pamphlets and a lamp with a fissured brown shade. Noise caught his ear, a motor zooming loud and quieting, axles banging over ruts. It got closer, closer, then cut off.
“Joshua!” A woman shouted.
“Just get in here!” he shouted back.
Ray let Mrs. Lewis’s head sink on the second pillow they had propped her against, murmuring to one another half-sentences of advice.
“Breathe a little better that way.”
“Get them dentures.”
It was true. In her fall, her upper plate had loosened. Her exhalations, forced around it, sounded unwell. Neither man wanted to reach in.
They heard the spring of the screen door whinge, the woman call out, “No, goddamn, don’t you even!” She came to stand in the bedroom doorway. Ray could hear children yipping in the yard.
“You let em out the van? Keep em away from that privy.”
“Josh, is that her?”
He snorted that she’d ask, beckoned the woman to change places with Ray, steering Ray by the shoulder again, back from the bed.
“You don’t have to worry, now. You go on home, if you want.”
“I didn’t look,” Ray said, “out in the living room, to see if she’s got a phone.” He wasn’t harping. He just wanted to know. “Or, if that van drives okay…”
“Drives good. But old Mrs. Lewis don’t need any hospital. Tamera’s gonna look after her. You get me, Ray. Say they wanna put her in a home. Be kind of a problem. Cause of that out back.”
He jerked his head.
(2017, Stephanie Foster)