Drawing Lily

By Nancy Bourne

hey were out on the porch at the sun-bleached table, their heads close, almost brushing, the boy Julian chattering away, the grandfather Carl nodding, his narrow hazel eyes and full, chapped lips expressionless. Both had pencils and paper; both were drawing. Out of the corner of his eye, the old man saw his daughter, Ellen, pull a crumpled tissue from her pocket, then disappear into the dark, pine-scented beach house.

Was she crying? He couldn’t tell. And anyway, it made no sense. She’d known for months. Lou Gehrig’s disease. There was a fancier name, but he could never remember it. And it somehow made him feel better that somebody famous, the baseball player, had died of it. Made the mumbling and the drooling he tried to conceal somehow less shameful.

He studied his grandson. Julian had his mother’s high cheekbones and sharp chin. Her same colorless eyebrows and lashes; her lank blond hair. The boy was explaining and asking questions, staring at his grandpa’s drawing, talking, talking as if his talking could fill the space left by the old man’s silence.

“Is that Lily?” Julian asked, smiling at the cow his grandfather had drawn. A really good cow, not a milk-carton cartoon cow, but a lumbering field animal with lowered head and wet, black nostrils and a bulging udder.

Carl’s wiry, tapered fingers added the tail, filled in the black spots. He bit his lip and squinted at the paper. The lines in the translucent skin of his cheeks deepened as he concentrated.

“Tell me,” Julian begged.

Carl shook his head and pointed at the boy’s bare, narrow chest.

“You want me to tell it?”

Carl nodded. He had told it so often, first to Ellen when she was Julian’s age, over and over, and then to his grandson.

“She was a good milker, Lily,” Julian said, imitating the slow, flat cadence of Carl’s southern speech.

The old man smiled, revealing a dimple that quickly disappeared into the deep lines of his cheek. He pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and patted his mouth.

“Your papa got her at the county auction, and he was right proud of her. You had to fetch her from the pasture every night before dinner.” The boy paused. “How old were you?”

Carl pocketed the damp handkerchief and held up both hands, fingers extended.

“Ten? Like me.” Julian paused for a minute, as if to let that piece of information sink in. “You were worried you’d be late that night, weren’t you? Your mama didn’t like you to be late for dinner. You were standing up close to Lily, about to take her lead rope, when something spooked her. Something loud. And all of a sudden, she just took off down the hill. You felt a powerful tug on your leg, then a stab of pain that knocked the breath out of you.”

Carl smiled at the boy’s recollection, not just of the story, but of the exact words Carl always used in telling it. Words like fetch, spooked, powerful tug. Words from the country, from the farm.

“Then you fell flat on your face with your left leg twisted under you.” Julian stared down at his own skinny legs poking out of his bathing suit.

“You had managed to tangle your leg up in that lead rope without knowing it, and Lily had yanked you over when she charged down the hill.”

He imagined he could still feel it. Luckily, the rope had slipped off early on and he hadn’t been dragged far. He had rolled over on his back, hollering out, trying to get up. But every time he tried to put weight on his left foot, the pain shot up his leg so bad he had to give it up. He lay there on that hill, pitying himself, for what seemed like hours, sure that Papa or Willard would come looking for him.

“You were all by yourself and nobody came.” Carl felt the boy’s hand, warm on his back, protective.

Nobody came. After a long time, he got up on his hands and his good knee. He could still feel it, the sharp knife of pain, as he dragged his hurt leg behind him up the hill toward the house. About halfway up, he found a stick strong enough to bear his weight. He fell a time or two, calling for his mama. But finally he opened the kitchen door and crawled inside. She was washing dishes. She took one look at him and screamed. All the family ran in from somewhere and just stood there staring at him. Then Papa picked him up and carried him to the front room and laid him on the couch.

“Your mama was scared you had broke your leg,” Julian continued. “But they didn’t take you to the doctor, did they?”

Doctors cost money they didn’t have, so they put it off. And next morning he was feeling better, except every time he tried to stand up, the pain was so sharp he had to hold his breath to keep from crying out. So they let him stay on the couch for a week or so.

“But it didn’t get better.”

It felt a little better. Papa said it was a sprain and it would take time to mend. Told him to take it easy. But there was work to do. So when he could stand it, he got up and hobbled around as best he could. But it kept hurting, and after another couple of weeks, he knew something was wrong. Not just a sprain. He’d had his share of sprained ankles. They hurt in a particular place when you moved a particular way. Papa would ask him where it hurt and he’d point to the place. This pain wasn’t like that. It was all over his leg, and it hurt all the time. There was no way he could move to get away from it. When it got that bad, he couldn’t even get out of bed. Mama kept asking wasn’t his leg getting better, but he told her it was about the same.

He couldn’t remember much of what happened next, except that in the middle of the night, his mama got out the truck and drove him to the hospital.

“The doctor said you had a bad break. And he had to break your leg again before he could set it. He said the bones had started to knit back together crooked and you’d have been a cripple if they’d left it like that. How’d they do it? Break your leg?”

Carl walked across the porch and picked up a pine twig that had fallen into the sand. He snapped it into two pieces.

“Wow!” Julian breathed. “They knocked you out with ether, didn’t they? Then they put you in a cast from your hip to your toes for six months. And you were on crutches for longer than that. After that, you limped for years and years.”

Carl was drawing again, this time a boy with his mouth turned down, walking on crutches.

“That’s why you never played baseball.” The boy thought for a moment. “Did your papa say he was sorry?”

The old man laughed and shook his head. Not a chance. His papa had said he was a damn fool to let that cow tangle his rope ’round his leg. They didn’t have the money for doctors, and the bad leg set them back considerably.

“But you got well, didn’t you?” The boy was no longer imitating his grandpa’s southern cadence. His voice was urgent now, insistent. “Your leg’s perfect now, isn’t it?”

Carl ran his hand through Julian’s silky, blond hair and kissed the top of his head, breathing in a mix of salt and sweat. He nodded.

“You got well,” Julian repeated.

They picked up their pencils and began drawing again.

*   *   *

He could still draw anyway. Lou Gehrig hadn’t robbed him of that. That’s how he thought of his disease, as a personal tormentor.

He’d first noticed it a year ago, in the spring. That he was slurring his words. His daughter kept after him to speak more clearly, and he tried. But his tongue didn’t work the way it always had and his throat felt tight. He tried to ignore it; he’d never been much of a talker anyway. But his daughter Ellen made him go to theUniversityHospitalinChapel Hillfor a checkup. The doctors there told him.

So he was going to die. They didn’t say that. They talked, instead, about medicines he could take to slow the process. They told him that the rest of his body, the parts that weren’t his throat and tongue, were still sound, but he might need physical therapy. He could still draw pictures and write words, even though his voice would soon be silenced. They didn’t mention what he’d already figured out, that he would eventually lose the ability to swallow, that before it was over he wouldn’t be able to breathe.

In some ways it was a relief not to talk. He didn’t have to discuss his symptoms with Ellen, who watched him, birdlike, fear deepening the lines between her eyes. He could get on with the parts of his life he had always loved.

This summer, for instance, he had rented this cottage at the beach for a month, the way he had always done. Year after year when his wife Jane was still alive, and later with Ellen and her family. Only, for the first time, Max wasn’t here. The discarded son-in-law he continued to love even though Ellen no longer did, the missing father Julian telephoned every night but never talked about.

Carl could still take short walks on the silky, white sand on legs that were functional, if not strong. He could roll up his pants legs and wade in the sun-baked ocean.

And he could draw, the way he always had, with confident strokes of the pen, with reckless joy. He was a draftsman by trade, had spent his years working for a firm of architects. He sat now on the front porch of the cottage at the picnic table, with Julian, drawing. The noonday heat swirled off the sand in front of him, distorting the string of cottages that followed the curve of the beach.

*   *   *

Carl was absorbed in his drawing when Julian jumped down from the porch onto the hot sand and headed off in the direction of the surf. Every few minutes, the old man shaded his eyes with his hand and looked out over the stretch of inert bodies clogging the shorefront. He could make out Julian standing about fifty yards away at the edge of the water, facing the panorama of surfboards, floats, girls in bikinis, splashing children. He knew Ellen didn’t let Julian go it alone, but he trusted the boy to stay safely on the beach. At the same time, he knew how much Julian loved the water, loved running into the crashing waves and being knocked under, loved feeling the heavy water rolling over him, the sand scraping his skin. Together they had been knocked over countless times, but they always bounced back to the surface, laughing, spitting out brine. Carl knew the ocean current was unpredictable, knew that very rarely an undertow could carry you out without warning. But to him the ocean was familiar, warm, playful.

And then Julian was gone. Carl pulled himself to his feet and peered out into the shimmering sunlight, searching the spread of red and yellow beach towels where Julian had just been standing. He wasn’t there.

Carl looked around for Ellen, but the cabin was empty. Where was she? He thought he remembered something about her going shopping, but he wasn’t sure. At any rate, she wasn’t here.

Panting heavily, he scrambled down the weathered porch steps onto the hot sand, weaving clumsily through the baked bodies strewn out on towels, through the children splashing water onto sand castles. At the water’s edge, he peered out beyond the swimmers, scanning the waves for this most precious of boys. No Julian.

“I won’t panic,” he told himself. “He’s somewhere on the beach.”

A man, deeply tanned with wind-blown white hair, approached. “You OK?”

Carl mopped the saliva running down the ridges beside his lips with his crumpled handkerchief. “My boy,” he mumbled.

The man peered at his face. “How old?” he asked.

Carl held up both hands, fingers extended.

“Ten?”

Carl nodded.

“Look, I’m sure he’s OK. The current’s been moving sideways up the beach. No undertow. Your boy’s probably having too much fun to notice.”

The man paused. “He’s not alone, is he?”

Carl didn’t answer, but headed up the beach in the direction the man pointed, splashing the shallow water, pounding deep footsteps in the wet sand. His breath was ragged and his throat burned. Every minute or so he had to stop. He scanned the surf, his hand shading his eyes from the blinding sun. There were so many people out there in the waves. Too many. Had he missed him in all those bodies? Beyond the waves, the water was black and vacant. Not a soul. He tried not to think about that.

He told himself that Julian was too sensible to swim by himself, too cautious. He tried to pick up his pace, glancing wildly around, but he stumbled and fell to his knees. A woman, too large for the bikini she was wearing, pulled him clumsily to his feet.

“Julian!” he tried to call out, but the word came out jumbled, broken.

“Are you alright?” she asked, her round face close to his, frowning.

He shook his head and tried to run, but he was unsure about the direction he should take, so he stood there in the hot sun, looking everywhere, seeing nothing. So that he almost missed him when Julian came wandering up the beach, his thin, sunburned shoulders shaking from the cold water, strands of his wet hair streaking into his eyes.

“I’m OK, Grandpa. I’m OK.” The boy grabbed him by the shirt and plunged his wet face into the old man’s soft chest. Carl could feel his slight body trembling, could feel the tears.

“I know,” he tried to say, but couldn’t. And so he wrapped his arms about the boy and held fast for a long time.

*   *   *

That night, Carl sat with Ellen on the stiff mattress next to Julian, who was absently picking up the colored pens and paper that floated over the surface of the lightweight summer blanket. The room was just large enough for the bunk bed and a small chest, and, like the rest of the cottage, smelled of pine.

“Why did you do it?” Ellen asked.

“What? Do what?”

“Go out there by yourself? You know better.” Her voice carried an edge of anger.

“I know,” he said.

“Then why?”

She took his face in both of her hands and looked him in the eye.

“I don’t know. I meant to stay on the beach. But then I was in the water. And a big wave came and I couldn’t touch bottom.” He started to cry. “I’m sorry.”

Ellen put her arms around him and held him against her. “What happened?”

“I was drowning,” he said, his voice breaking.

“How did you get back?”

“I don’t know. I was on the bottom. It was dark and the water was in my nose.”

Ellen rocked him in her arms. The anger was gone. “You’re safe now,” she said.

Carl put his arms around his daughter and cradled both of them against him. He had failed them. He loved them. His eyes stung from all the things he knew and couldn’t say.

Julian pulled away from his mother. “This is going to sound weird,” he said, “but I have an idea about heaven.”

“Heaven?”

Carl was surprised. He couldn’t remember the subject of heaven ever coming up before.

“I don’t know. It’s just an idea I got.”

“OK.”

“Well, not exactly heaven. But a place you go, you know, after you die.”

“Yeah?”

“Here’s my idea. You go there sideways. Not up like heaven or down like hell. But somewhere different, and you go there sideways.” He was fiddling with the colored pens, avoiding his mother’s questioning gaze.

“OK.”

“Do you know what I mean?” He faced his grandpa.

Carl shook his head. He stroked Julian’s cheek. It was so soft, so smooth. His beautiful Julio.

“It’s a world like this one and you meet a lot of people in that place, your family and people you knew a long time ago.”

His eyes were fixed on Carl’s, silently pleading.

“It’s a lovely idea,” Ellen said.

“I don’t want it to be lovely. I want it to be true. I want Daddy to be there all the time, and you and Grandpa.”

Carl pulled the boy to him, felt the soft flesh of his shoulder, felt his resistance.

“It’s a dumb idea,” Julian said, breaking away from his grandfather and sinking down into the covers.

Ellen bent down to kiss him. “No,” she said, “It’s a beautiful idea. I wish I could tell you it was true. I wish it were true. And maybe it is.”

“Forget it,” he said and turned away from her.

“Julian, why did you go swimming by yourself?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is it something to do with Grandpa?”

“I don’t know,” he said. “I won’t do it again.”

*   *   *

The next day they were back on the porch, each absorbed in his own drawing. And Carl had once again, without meaning to, drawn Lily. For the first time since Lou Gehrig had struck, he wanted his voice back. He had things to say. Things his grandson needed to hear. And sitting there, mute, impotent, he had drawn the cow. As if to remind himself, not of his broken leg and the months of wearing a cast, the years of limping, sketching the baseball players he watched from the sidelines, but of something else: a memory he had pushed away, of lying in bed under a feather quilt in an empty house. Aching not just in his leg, but in his whole body. Shaking with cold in the warm spring afternoon. Calling out to his mother who wasn’t there. There was nothing but silence, and he knew it was too late. They wouldn’t get back in time.

He had no memory of their finding him, shivering, burning with fever, no memory of the ride to the hospital in the pickup. They had told him that part. What he remembered now, what his body remembered, was the tightness in his throat, the sharp sting behind his eyes, the crush of darkness, the terror. No light anywhere, even from the window where the shades had been drawn. He called out, “Mama, Mama!” Silence. He held his breath, listening. Nothing. And he knew, right then he knew, he would die.

*   *   *

His hands were shaking and the space behind his eyes stung. To keep from crying, he looked over at Julian, absorbed in his drawing. This, he thought, this boy. He was what it was about, what he would miss. This very boy.

Carl ducked his head and reached for his handkerchief. Then he began to draw. A series of pictures, cartoon-like, of waves. Blue waves, black waves. They covered the entire page. Then there was a head, just a small head, barely visible above the breakers. He added a new frame to his cartoon. The head belonged to a boy. His arms were waving. Over his head was a moon, and a cow, just like Lily, was jumping over the moon.

Julian put down his own pencil and began to watch his grandpa. In the next frame, Lily jumped down to the ocean and started swimming toward the boy. A balloon came out of the boy’s mouth, “Help, help, I’m drowning.” The cow was getting closer.

“Grandpa,” Julian laughed. “Cows can’t swim.”

The cow stopped swimming in front of the boy and wrapped the chain from her neck around the boy. She then began swimming back to shore, towing the boy behind her. When he was safely on shore, the boy got up on Lily’s back and rode off down the beach.

Julian laughed. “That’s awesome, Grandpa. Do another one.”

Carl placed a fresh piece of paper in front of Julian and pointed to him. And Julian began to draw.

___

Nancy Bourne is a former high school English teacher and retired public school attorney who spent most of her legal career as a partner at a firm specializing in education law. After retiring, she treated herself to a master’s degree in English literature. Since 2005, she has taught writing to prisoners at San Quentin State Prison. When not writing or teaching, she travels extensively. She enjoys hiking in the Mt. Tamalpais and Point Reyes areas of Marin County, California.

She has studied writing with Tom Parker at U.C. Berkeley Extension and Stephanie Soileau at Stanford University Extension.

 


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