On April 2, 2006, the State of Indiana adopted Daylight Saving Time — or fast time as they called it in the diner I was working in back then. The world had not come to an end, as the Anti-Savers had predicted. Cars were still running, corn was still growing, and only a relatively minor number of employees were late to work as a result of pushing the clocks ahead an hour. I had one particular ornery breakfast customer tell me that if she died before the fall back, the Governor at the time, Mitch Daniels, would have stolen an hour from her life. This short work of fiction was inspired by this person.
I’ve posted it today, in honor of still being thoroughly inconvenienced by DST, and also because a story does no one any good languishing on my hard-drive for ten years. I don’t think I’ve ever shared any of my fiction online before. So if you must comment, be gentle. Should you care to connect, you might find me on twitter @melissajohill.
As she lay dying, Willowdean Rogers was acutely aware that the Indiana state legislatures stole an hour from the end of her life. “You could at least draft a damn letter,” she growled to her son.
Henry Rogers made himself busy on the edge of her bed by patting his mother’s hand, “Hush Mama. Conserve your energy.”
“I ain’t conserving no energy, I’m dying. And you can thank our esteemed Governor for speeding me along my journey to the hereafter.” She shut her eyes and sighed. Soon it would be over and she could relax. Soon. Too soon. She puckered her lips, bitter at the thought. “You ungrateful shithead,” she hissed. “Your damn head was so big they had to cut you out of my belly and you can’t even make a phone call to express your displeasure in the tragic shortening of your dear mama’s life?”
“Maybe we should go, Hank.” Margaret whispered from across the room.
Willowdean struggled to lift her head and squinted at her daughter-in-law. “Keep your hands out of my trinket box.”
Margaret straightened her back away from the bureau she was leaning on and folded her arms across her chest. “Don’t you think Mama would like a few minutes of peace and quiet?” She crossed and took a hold of Henry’s shoulder. “We could go get all that paperwork in order; let Mama have a little nap.”
Willowdean snorted. Nap. Who were they kidding?
“Come on, Henry, let Mama and Bertram have some time alone,” Margaret urged.
Henry turned toward his mother’s bedroom window, where Bertram sat in his rocking chair gazing past the yellowing lace curtains to Main Street. “Hey Bert,” he called. “Bert.”
Bertram had been deaf for years now. He sat there, his knotty fingers wrapped around his knobby knees, rocking away, back and forth. The slack expression on his face revealed nothing. He might as well already be dead. Margaret had predicted that he would pass soon after Willowdean. Henry grunted and stood up, shaking his head. He took Margaret’s arm and led her out, closing the door to an inch, carefully and quietly.
Willowdean shifted up on her pillows the best she could to look at her husband. There was a lot she didn’t know about him and now there wasn’t time to ask. They’d married fifteen years ago, right before her fifty-ninth birthday. Her sister, Paula had gotten her a part-time job at the Diner, where Bert was a regular. She didn’t need the money, just to get out, as Paula put it. That’s where they met. Bertram still had his ears. He was still a striking man, tall and thin, a shock of silver set off by his meticulously cut black hair. She didn’t care much for the idea of being married again, but at least her new husband would be good looking. He retired and shut down his barber shop that same year. They got married in the fall and wintered in Palm Springs.
She fumbled with the remote box the nurse gave her and found the button, increasing her morphine drip. All she could feel of the tumor was a mild burning, still it was pain. The anniversary clock spinning under glass said it was nearly four. Bert was just rocking away. He didn’t look awake anymore, but Willowdean couldn’t be sure, her vision was starting to blur.
“Mama?” Henry whispered in her ear. She started and spurted. Must have dozed off. “Mama?” he was pushing something in her hand. A pen.
“You got my letter written?”
“No mama, I need you to sign this piece of paper here.”
“To Mitch Daniels?”
“No mama, this is a will so that the house and everything come to me and not Bertram.” He was speaking so quiet Willowdean could hardly hear him. Surly Bert wouldn’t hear.
She felt the pen in her palm. “I ain’t putting my name to nothing,” she snapped, curling her wrist away, “unless it’s a Goddamn No-Thank You card to my representative.”
Henry lowered his eyes. He looked so much like his father when he pouted like this. Still, it was hard for her to believe that Henry was acting this way of his own accord. She had nursed this baby boy. She had made him felt crowns on his birthdays and had gone to every one of his basketball games. Even the few after his father died.
Must be Margaret’s doing. Willowdean had to remind herself that her good son saw something redeeming in her. It was hard to be Christian about it though, especially since she didn’t really believe in God or Heaven.
“Mama, I’m just trying to save what’s ours. What Daddy worked for.” He gestured around the room. The house. The backyard. They had bought the house in town for seven thousand dollars fifty-five years ago and her sister snapped a picture of them in the front yard. The one on her dresser — John’s strong arm draped over her shoulder, a wide grin pasted across his face. She stood at his side, a small excitable bird of a woman — practically vibrating the photograph. Everything she could have ever dreamt of wanting was coming true.
She pushed her son’s hand away. “I want to talk to the Governor. Then I’ll sign whatever the hell you want.”
Henry’s lip curled and he narrowed his eyes, blowing the air from his cheeks. “Look now. You’re being unreasonable.”
“How’s it unreasonable for a dying woman to talk to her Governor? I paid all them taxes my whole life. You think I paid them so they could steal my last hour?”
“Ma no one stole nothing! I’ve explained to you how it works.”
“The way I see it is stealing. If I ain’t never got to take an hour, and I won’t be around to take an hour in the fall when they give it back, it’s stealing. No one asked me and I didn’t vote it. Now you go and get Mitch Daniels on the phone and when I’m done I’ll sign all the papers in the world.” Her back was on fire. She felt all along the blankets at her sides for that remote.
The doctor explained that the tumor had originated on her sacrum, but had spread so bad and gotten so big that there wasn’t much to do save chemo. By then it was already painful just to sit. She didn’t feel like fighting it. Felt like she was out of fight for it. Wanted to pick her battles, just like John.
Henry rolled the papers in his hand and huffed. He looked so much like his daddy, all those years ago, when he put those papers down on the kitchen table and told her about his civic duty.
When she told Bert that she was dying, he nodded his head, agreeing with her; or perhaps he was dying too. Willowdean never got around to finding an appropriate time to ask him. There would never be time. He rocked away in his corner while Henry sat next to her in bed. Willowdean breathed heavy through the pain, her small body writhing beneath the floral sheets.
“This is pointless.” Margaret said from the doorway. “Willowdean, if you’re worried about Bertie, Hank and I will take care of him. But if he goes in a home, we don’t want to lose this place.”
All the damn sunlight flooded the room and reflected off Margaret’s big hair. Why would Henry marry a redheaded woman? Would John have liked her any better? She was in the middle of baking banana muffins for the 4H when the man came to her door. He wore a freshly pressed uniform. It was hot. Unseasonably hot for May. He was sweating down his forehead, but didn’t flinch at all as he calmly explained that John’s helicopter went down somewhere in northern Laos. Henry was still in school. She finished her baking before she went to pick him up. She couldn’t bring herself to look at him, so instead watched her knuckles turning white on the steering wheel as she told her son. He didn’t say a word. Pulled his basketball from his backpack and got out of the car to go back to the gym. Willowdean waited in the parking lot for three and a half hours before he came back out and they went home.
Bertram didn’t have any children of his own with his first wife. It didn’t seem right for Willowdean to start worrying about him now though, considering she never gave him much consideration before. She had grown to love him in the same way one might love a cat, and Bert was no John. Willowdean was allergic to cats. “Better get on the phone, then,” she muttered.
Margaret huffed and stormed from the doorway.
“Ma,” Henry said. He took her hand up. Willowdean eyes felt crossed as she tried to focus on him through the dust dancing in the light. “You know I love you, Mama.”
If John would have lived, is this how he would have looked? Henry’s ruddy face had filled out over the years, his russet hair graying above a high, wrinkled brow. It was painful to see this man, this aged man, old man — and know it was her son. “Mama, this was Daddy’s house, that’s all I’m saying.” Henry whispered, gently stroking her hand.
She coughed, suddenly aware of her internal organs. Was it happening now? Is this what it felt like then? “You best get on the phone then.” What would she do with one more hour? Argue with her son about Daylight Saving Time? Maybe if she could trade that hour at the end for one near the beginning. One more hour with John.
Henry heaved and frowned. “Margaret, can you bring me a phone book, dear?”
One more hour before he stepped on that damn bus. She had given him a card she bought at the general store, that she took around to all their family and friends and gotten signed. She told him to open it when he got too lonely. The envelope came back sealed with his dog tags and postcards, comb and cigarette lighter.
Maybe she’d pick an hour when Henry was still little, still sweet. An hour that John was showing him the new tractor, holding the boy on his lap. Henry smiling so big his face might crack in half. “That would be a good hour,” she moaned.
One more hour on their wedding night. Another hour when he first walked her home from school. Her hands were shaking. She reached for the button.
She could hear Bertram ferociously rocking. Maybe she’d pick an hour with him, right after they were married, in Florida. She walked along the beach collecting sand dollars while he sat reading under an umbrella. Indiana was so far away that she gave herself hopes of forgetting it all. She felt comfortable and happy; satisfied by the warm sand soothing her arthritic feet. Bert was smiling and waving at her and they were just starting to be good friends.
“Got it!” Margaret pushed through the door, holding the phonebook out to Henry.
He looked at his mother closely and hesitated, “Mama, you want me to call Pastor Edwards?”
Why would she want that? Sounds were faraway now. Must be like this for poor Bert all the time. Poor Bert, he’ll be all alone again. A man should never outlive a wife, let alone two wives. Henry would be lost without Margaret to boss him around. Maybe that’s why he married her.
Margaret was at her side, crinkling a paper in her face, “Willodean, Mama? You gotta sign this for Henry, now.”
Willowdean shoved through the paper. “The Governor! I want to talk to the Governor!” She would let him know. She would give him a piece.
“All right, Mama.” Henry sighed. He was flipping through the pages in the book, turning them quickly. Maybe Willowdean would just take another hour with him. Maybe just another hour where she could look at him and he could hold her hand. He was a good man. She should tell him. She should tell him that John would be proud.
Henry had a phone in his hand. “Okay I’m going to call for you Mama.”
“Unbelievable,” Margaret hissed.
Willowdean felt a coldness creeping up on her, but she welcomed it over the burning. Her arms were too heavy to find the button again and her head was already floating. Maybe she could go back father, pick an hour with her own mother, collecting eggs from the hutch in their backyard. The chickens were scary and she clung to her mother’s legs.
She didn’t want to die. She cried, the pain sharpened. Henry jumped at the noise, fumbling with the phone at his ear. One more hour anytime but now.
“Yes please. I got a situation on my hands here,” Henry said into the receiver, “See, my mother is dying and she really wants to speak to Governor Mitch Daniels.”
Willowdean shut her eyes.
“Yes, I’ll hold.”
Margaret let go of the papers she was holding to watch the color drain from her mother-in-law’s face.
Henry lowered the phone to his lap.
The squeak of Bertram’s rocking chair slowed to a halt. He pushed himself up on the arms and crossed to Willowdean’s bed. Steadying himself with a hand on Henry’s shoulder, he bent down to kiss his wife on the forehead before shuffling slowly from the bedroom.
Henry could hear voices on the line, too late.