THE GOPHER IN RAE’S CHEST
by Beth Gilstrap
Rae took care of all her husband’s people. His parents and great uncle all moved in when their house had finally caved in after twenty years of storms beating the hell out of their roof. She had stopped asking why they didn’t do anything about the state of the place years ago, swallowed up the fact of her life of have to easier than she would a gel cap ibuprofen, which she had to buy in bulk when she realized the enormity of her household’s collective aching.
After they were all in the ground, Hugh wanted to travel, but by golly she was tired and finally off the clock after thirty years teaching school and another ten feeding old folks. At least her parents had had the decency to die when she was a girl, her Daddy sick from pesticides they sprayed in the fields, her Mama from pneumonia. It seemed a mustard plaster on the chest did not clear the lungs as well as penicillin. She told Hugh to let her be, that he could go off gallivanting any place he pleased, but she intended to rest for once in her life.
Issue #137 soundtrack: Thea “Heavyweight Champion”
“But you ain’t never been anywhere,” he said, drying the heavy stock pot and lid he’d dried a million times before.
“And I’m good with that. What’s got you so worked up? Wanderlust looks strange on you. Makes you sort of pink.”
“Everyone’s gone now.”
“Except me,” Rae said, drying her hands on her apron.
“The house is too quiet. I can’t hardly stand it.”
She crossed to the living room and took a seat in Hugh’s massage chair. “I like being able to hear the air click on. The Barred Owl at night is nice, too.”
“Come on, Rae. Let’s get an RV. You can listen to owls anywhere.”
“Sure. Shove me in a tin can so I can still make your dinner even when I’m carsick and we’re lost on a redneck highway to nowhere.”
“We can’t eat road food all the time. Cholesterol would skyrocket.”
“You should learn to cook, then.”
“I love you. I’m just trying to get you out in the world.”
“Oh, hush,” Rae said, pushing herself almost flat in the recliner, letting the mechanism roll down her spine, highlighting all the little kinks she tried to put out of her mind during the day.
“What are you saying, exactly?”
“I’m saying you can’t handle losing your people. They’re gone, and you feel like you’re alone in the world. Like I ain’t sitting right next to you. Like I haven’t held your hand for most of my life. Like I’m what? You want to leave, that’s on you. Go get you a recreational vehicle if you want it. Spend the rest of your days in a bullet with wheels and sleep with one of those pullout sofa bars in your back. See if I care.”
“You’ve gotten hostile in your old age.”
“I’m tired, Hugh. That’s all.”
“Might as well be dead.”
“Who’s hostile now? I suppose you’ll throw a tantrum, but babe, I got news for you. There ain’t a thing on earth you can withhold from me that would make a difference.”
“I’m going to the dealership.”
“Go on, then. Pick up some chicken for dinner.”
Still standing in the doorway, he turned around to face her, both hands in his back pockets, his shoulders raised, unsure. “I do love you. Same as I did the day you walked up Mama and Daddy’s porch. I thank God for that barn cat of y'all’s getting knocked up. For your tenderhearted Daddy trying to save those kittens.”
“The man was a fool.”
At that, Hugh’s shoulders fell, and he walked out the door to purchase his escape. Five hours later, he came home with what Rae had to admit was a cute little number, had a green retractable awning and everything. For a moment, when she stood next to her husband as he went down the list of all the knickknacks and doohickeys the thing had, she pictured the two of them on a hill above some lake, cutting up hot dogs, frying them on a camp stove, pouring pintos in the pan and listening to them sizzle, replacing suburban air with wood smoke, and seeing the whole world turned blue in the fading light. But by the time he finished gushing, the flash of optimism had passed.
“It’s pretty and all, but I’m not going anywhere in that thing. Pull the awning out and set up a couple folding chairs out here on the driveway, and I might join you for ice cream or a drink in the evenings. But this bird stays put.”
The next morning, Hugh packed everything he wanted, and that was that. Rae had the place to herself. She kept a similar cleaning and cooking routine for a few weeks, but then figured what the hell and started letting things pile up. Wasn’t nobody coming around. What did she care? She took to watching three soap operas in a row, stretched out on the massage chair, which she rarely left.
On one of her late nights watching Designing Women reruns, a pain burrowed into her chest like some kind of gopher, and before she knew it, she was on her hands and knees trying to force herself to take slow, deep breaths, to focus on the funny debutante thing Suzanne Sugarbaker did. But before long, she couldn’t think about anything but calling an ambulance.
Chest pains get you seen quicker than most things. Her poor Mama had died partly because they hadn’t felt it was necessary to call the doctor in the night she was admitted. They’d said her condition could wait until morning, but not Rae’s. Hot lights on her face and a fast trip on the gurney made her nauseated, or maybe it was the thought of being cut open after she had packed her mother-in-law’s belly wound and changed her dressing. She hoped things would just sort of fade to black, but they didn’t.
In a couple of hours, they had her upright sucking on ice chips. Whatever they’d given her in her IV cooled her face and soothed the gopher in her chest. She had the nurse turn on the television. By then, it was the morning show circuit, and all she could get was the one with that 90-pound blonde with the squeaky voice, the one married to that good-looking fella on the soaps. They both used to be on soaps, but that gal thinks people forgot. The doctor turned the volume down when he came in to say her heart was fine, that it was her brain on the fritz, said she might consider seeing a psychiatrist, get something to help, but in the meantime, here’s five Ativan to help her sleep at night.
He put his hand on her shoulder. “Is there anyone I can call for you, ma’am?”
“We aren’t quite there, yet,” he said. “If you do okay for a few more hours, we’ll talk about releasing you.”
She watched 90-pound Kelly hold herself so straight Rae thought she must be plopped down on a stick, like those expensive dolls her mother never let her play with. She decided 90-pound Kelly was better muted. Rae could make up her own story to go along with the guests. She pretended the guests were her own dead, come back to give a review of the afterlife, but all her father-in-law wanted to talk about was Hugh’s recreational vehicle, catching mountain trout, hollering out at the gorge like a coyote, swimming a blue lake, charred meat. Maybe she was on just the right drugs. Maybe she would see a shrink and ask for more.
The sun came in brighter than should be allowed in a hospital. Nurses came and went, but she hadn’t seen a doctor since the one who told her she was nutso. She heard someone with squeaky shoes coming down the hall but didn’t expect it to be Hugh who turned the corner. He was tan, had buzzed what was left of his hair, and had trimmed down considerably.
“Well, if it ain’t the wild man of Borneo come to haunt my dreams.”
“Hey there, Rae. How are things? Doc says you had a scare.”
“Everything’s fine. I’m not dying. I’m just crazy.”
“Don’t talk that way,” Hugh said, pulling up a chair. He slid the remote control out of her hand, set it on the rolling table, and placed both hands on hers. “I’ve missed you.”
“Bull,” Rae said, keeping her eyes on the screen.
He turned her chin his direction. “Rae, please. I’m having fun out there, yes, but it ain’t the same on my own.”
“I’m sure you could find some old gypsy or hell, a young one, to keep you company.”
“Anyway, I’m here to get you home and settled.”
Hugh had brought her a change of clothes since the doctor told him they’d had to cut off her sweatshirt. He helped her get her arms in the long sleeves and pulled it gently over her head, smoothing her hair once it was on.
“I bet I look a mess. What’d you bring this shirt for?”
“Because you always looked good in peach.”
“Right here,” he said, pulling them out of his back pocket.
Once Hugh got the shearling booties on her feet, Rae felt cozy for the first time since he left. At first, she thought it was just having someone around, but by the time he brought her hot cocoa that night, rubbed rosemary oil into her stiff shoulders, and made her scrambled eggs in the morning, she knew it wouldn’t have eased her mind if it had been anyone else.
While he washed and folded his clothes, she walked out to the RV. She pulled herself up the steps and inside where she opened all the cabinets, peeked in the bathroom, which only had a little soap scum on the shower door, and eventually lay down on the bed in the back. She wondered what it was like to arrive at a camp at night and open the window in the morning to an unfamiliar landscape. She wondered what 90-pound Kelly and Suzanne Sugarbaker would say. She couldn’t picture either of them under mosquito netting, going rogue without make-up, or having no agenda.
“What’s going on in here?” Hugh asked.
“Hell,” she said, jerking up. “You scared the bejesus out of me.”
“This is my place, ain’t it?”
“Just wanted to see what it was like. It suits you, actually.”
“It could’ve suited you, if you’d given it a chance.”
Rae fiddled with her dress, feeling the gopher poke his head up out of her heart. “I think I have to tell you something.”
“This gopher in my chest tells me I miss you.”
“Does that mean you want to come along?”
“The gopher says yes.”
“What about resting?”
“I don’t think I can rest without you. But you know, they say I need medication, so what do I know?”
“I should think so if you’ve got a gopher in there,” he said, placing three fingers where he could feel her rapid heart.
“Can we pull the awning out tonight? It’s supposed to be cool. We could light a fire.”
“And I could play my harmonica.”
“Or we could stay right here,” she said, pulling back the quilt and sliding inside. Snuggling into a bed that smelled like him again made her think maybe she wouldn’t have to wipe his mouth or watch his toes purple near the end. Maybe she would die first after all.
Beth Gilstrap is the author of I Am Barbarella: Stories (2015) from Twelve Winters Press and No Man’s Wild Laura (2016) from Hyacinth Girl Press. She works as Fiction Editor at Little Fiction | Big Truths, and her writing has been selected as Longform.org’s Fiction Pick of the Week, nominated for storySouth’s Million Writers Award, Best of the Net, and The Pushcart Prize. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Bull, WhiskeyPaper, The Minnesota Review, Literary Orphans, and Little Patuxent Review, among others. She lives in Charlotte with her husband and enough rescue pets to make life interesting. Visit her at bethgilstrap.com.
Scott Michael Ackerman is a self-taught artist from upstate New York. Ackerman takes an unconventional and primitive approach to painting, rejecting the boundaries of traditional culture. Rather than start with a blank canvas, Ackerman prefers to use ‘found objects’ with rough character such as old wood, windows, and doors to help inspire him. He's shown works throughout the Hudson Valley and abroad. To see more, visit lovescottart.com.
Thea is an Austin, TX based musician hailing from the green hills of North Carolina. Her recently-released debut album, Tangents, features a mix of blues, indie rock, dream pop, and jazz. For more, listen on Bandcamp and follow on Facebook.