FALL BREAK

Short Story By Samuel E. Cole

Saturday

Braden daydreamed about fucking women during the entire bus ride home for Thanksgiving from Eastern Oregon College. His father had demanded he come home, said his mom was bad, real bad, worse than ever. His mother’s oldest friend, Candice, met him at the Greyhound terminal. 
A skinny, blonde fifty-something enhanced by smooth skin and doe eyes was proof that some women age with beauty. Braden’s mother, who was crippled and shriveling up in a creaky nursing home bed was proof that some women age with ugliness. Candice’s boobs were enormously perky. Real or fake, he couldn’t decide, scanning her face, looking for plastic surgery scars — nothing, as far as he could see. Real. In the flesh. Accomplished.

“How ya doing, kiddo?” She offered an embrace which Braden accepted, pushing his chest into her boobs. Her neck smelled of cigarette smoke and honey. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of thin impressionable lines marked the skin beneath her chin.

“Where’s father?”
“Your mother asked me to pick you up.”
“Is she talking again?” Excitement filled his voice. “Father said she’s worse.”
“She scribbles a little when she can.”

On the drive home, Candice rambled on about zodiac signs, the declining American healthcare system, and the new spine-tingling roller coaster being built in Portland. Simple car banter. Nothing too sexy. That is, until she lit a cigarette and blew circular smoke rings from light-purple lips. 
“Want a drag?” 
She handed him the cigarette, the butt smoldering red and orange. Taking it, he glanced at her bra, quickly realizing she wasn’t wearing one, nipples erect as his cock.
“Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t tell anyone if you don’t.”

Braden took a puff of the cigarette, which hardened his cock. Displeased with the unfamiliar texture and stench of warm nicotine, he coughed and threw it out the window. Candice laughed and lit another, then another, then another, boob dancing to some 1970’s song playing on the radio. Braden didn’t recognize the song, but he very much liked the dance.

“Join me.” She tickled the tip of the boner. “Dancing’s fun.”
“I haven’t danced before.” He stared at her cleavage. “I don’t know how to jiggle like that.”
“Come on.” She winked. “I can see you’ve got more than a little jiggle in ya.” Her words, and tone, sounded odd, as if she was trying to impress youth with silliness. He moved his shoulders a little, but like everything else, including the boner, the movement felt foreign and out of control.

Candice giggled. “I can teach you a few dance moves sometime if you’d like.” She sounded girlish and sincere. “Would you like that?”
“Did my mom dance? Like for real?”

Candice turned off the radio. “Your mom danced better than anyone.” Silence overtook the car, lingering like empty thought-bubbles during the remaining ten mile drive to Braden’s house. Candice didn’t smoke or boob dance. Braden wished he hadn’t brought up his mother. Not because he didn’t want to talk about her. He did. But because his and Candice’s mood had changed. “Sorry if I ruined the mood.”

“You can make it up to me someday.” She pulled to the curb. “Tell your dad hi.”
“Okay.”
“I mean it.” She revved the engine. “Ask him about me and see what he says.”

Braden nodded goodbye and heaved a backpack over a shoulder. Walking up the gravel driveway, he counted a dozen flower beds, rock gardens, and bird feeder — each one vacant. Loss had come, and sadly, he knew more was coming. His father was asleep in the recliner when he opened the door and whispered, “I’m home.”

Sunday

After eating a Lean Cuisine microwaveable breakfast — scrambled eggs and sausage links — he and his father stood and stared out the kitchen window into the backyard. 
“I’m gonna put the house on the market after your mother is,” his father paused, and sighed. “Oh, and you’re gonna have to figure out your own tuition next year. There’s nothing left to give.”

Braden’s mind drifted to happier times when his mother used to stand in the kitchen and spray White Diamonds perfume on a nimble neck and friction-smudging wrists. She wore it everywhere, even when cleaning the house. The scent had vanished, likely forever.

“Braden!” His father yelled, startling Braden. His father often raised his voice. It was either yelling or neglect. “You listening, boy?”
“Did you and mom ever smoke cigarettes?”
“I don’t know. Maybe a little.” His father scoffed. “How’s Candice?”
“Quiet.”
“That’s not like her.”
“I don’t know what else to tell ya.”
“Did she say anything about me or your mother?”
“Not a word.”
“So you two didn’t talk at all?”
“She was too busy smoking.” And boob dancing. Which he didn’t say. Best to keep some things to himself.
“She’s going with us to see your mother tomorrow. Why don’t you phone her and confirm what time she’s gonna meet us at the facility.”
Facility? How cavalier. 
“Isn’t the name of the nursing home called Oak Shores?”
“I think its Oak Woods.” His father shrugged. “Candice’s number is by the phone in the den.”

Braden dialed slowly, rechecking every number before he pushed the keys.

“This is Candice.”
“Hey, it’s Braden.”
“Talking two times in one day, aren’t I the lucky gal.”
“You going with us to see mom tomorrow?”
“Tell you father I can’t make it.”
“But he said you wanted to go.”
“I can’t do it, Braden. Not right now.”

Monday

Awakened by a nightmare of falling, Braden stood, unlocked the door, dressed, and sat on edge of the bed. He took slow inventory of the many pictures hanging on the walls: winter sledding smiles, water-park thumbs up, clown costumes for Halloween, a buzz haircut for confirmation, and a large canvas picture of him, his mom, and Candice at his high school graduation. His father wasn’t in any of the pictures. He opened the nightstand and flipped through an old scrapbook his mom had made before MS began to strip her body down, little by little, until cutting and pasting were reflexive tasks meant for stronger, healthier people like him, his father, and Candice.

Around 9am — or was it 8? — Braden found his father watching TV in the den. 
“Candice said she’ll meet us at the hospital around three,” Braden lied.
“She knows your mother’s meds happen at three. Why would she pick that time?”
“I mean four.” Braden hit his forehead. “Brain fart. Sorry.”

His father stood and turned off the TV. “She usually works till five.” He pushed Braden aside. “You sure you talked to the right Candice?”

“I wanna drive mother’s car around the neighborhood before we go to Oak Shores?” The name of the facility is Oak Shores. His father knew it. Now.
“Fine. It needs a little drive anyway.”
“Why aren’t you in any of the pictures in my bedroom?”
“Someone had to take them.” His father disappeared into the bathroom. “Dummy.”

Braden spent the rest of the day daydreaming about Candice’s boobs and overlooking his mother’s body.
“Let’s visit your mother tomorrow,” his father said. “I don’t feel like going today.”
“Is she expecting us?”
“No, she is not.”

Tuesday

Braden’s highest hope was to take Candice by surprise, to shock her when he drove up alone to her house in his mother’s car at noon with two packs of cigarettes and a fifteen-dollar bottle of Merlot he’d stolen from Shanti’s Liquor. But she wasn’t shocked, much to his surprise, setting the bottle of wine on the coffee table and leading him and the cigarettes into the bedroom where she pleasured his body in ways he had only ever fantasized about in middle school, high school, college, last night, and this morning. Not necessarily with her, but whatever. She looked human and played nice, unlike his mother and father. And him.

“I’m moving to Pittsburgh next month,” she said after a second orgasm. She lit a cigarette and stuck it in Braden’s mouth. “Exhale this time.”

He moved the cigarette to the left side of his mouth and let it hang. “Why Pittsburgh?” He stuck the cigarette in the right side of Candice’s mouth. She laid back, wiggled her toes, inhaled, exhaled, and told stories about his mom, stories he’d never heard, stories about childhood poverty, school suspensions, anorexia, roller rinks, and two abortions before Braden came along with all his goddamn blessedness. “I’m sorry to be telling you this but your mom asked me to tell you, so here it is.” Candice paused and took a long drag. No rings. No light-purple lips. No grey trails of smoke. “I guess she thought it was time.”
“Is she gonna die soon?”
“What do you think?”

Wednesday

“The facility called and said your mother’s busy all day with tests. Told us it’s best to come tomorrow.”
“I’m gonna take mother’s car for another drive if that’s okay.”
“If it runs out of gas, it’s your problem to deal with.”
“When’s the last time you saw mother?”
“Pick up some milk on your way home.” He tossed a twenty dollar bill on the kitchen table. “And get some burgers from White Castle. Without cheese. I hate cheese.”
“Did mother like White Castle?”
“No, she did not.”
“Did she like cheese?”
“More provolone than cheddar.”
“Why don’t you want to go see her?”
“I know everything there is to know about her.”
“Was she poor growing up?”
“We both were.”
“How long have you known Candice?”
“Your mother introduced us years ago.”
“Has she had work done?”
“What? Like plastic surgery.”
“Exactly like plastic surgery.”
“Maybe. Why?”
“She looks different from women her age. She looks younger and smoother and sorta not right.”
“She’s always been fine featured.”
“Are she and mother still best friends?”
“Why the sudden interest in Candice?”

Braden sat quiet, wishing to ask his father the same question. But he didn’t, worried the answer might reveal the truth. 
“I’m gonna go for a drive.”
“Be careful with her car. I’ve got it for sale on craigslist and also on used cars dot com.”

***

Braden took the cigarette from Candice’s lips. “What’s going on with you and my father?”
Candice blew rings. “For as long as I’ve known them both, I’ve loved them both, in very different ways.”

They laid in silence while Braden smoked three more cigarettes, each puff getting easier, and harder, to let go. He stared at the palm-leaf ceiling fan, spinning clockwise, the way normal fans in normal people’s lives spin.
“Do you love him?” Braden asked.
“He wants to open a travel agency in Pennsylvania.”
“Travel Agency.” Braden laughed. “He didn’t even come to get me at the bus station. He hates going anywhere.”
“He says it’s been a lifelong dream.”
“My parents don’t even own a set of luggage.”
“He wants to specialize in organizing world trips.”
“Does mom know about you two and your travel plans?”
“I doubt it.” Candice stared at the ceiling fan. “But you have to promise me you won’t tell her.”
“Only if you agree to have sex with me until I go back to college.” He stood. “And before I leave, I want you to take me to the skating rink where mom skated and then I also want you to do one more thing with me that I’ll tell you more about later.”
“The rink’s closed.” She covered herself with the sheet. “It’s been torn down for years.”
“Then tell me about the two abortions.” He walked around the room, opening drawers, drapes, and windows. “Are any of his things here?”
“You’re father made her do it.” She stood. “She didn’t want to do it.”
“Why would you want to be with him?”
“Misery and company and all, you know.” She took another drag. “We deserve each other.”
“How could you do this to my mom? I thought you were best friends.”
“Love doesn’t follow the easiest, most linear path, Braden. Oftentimes it hurts, and other times it hurts others.” She extinguished the cigarette with a thumb and dropped the sheet to the floor. She walked around the room shutting the drawers, windows, and drapes. “Life doesn’t play out like some three minute song, my dear. There’s no magic potion. No happily ever after. Not for people like us.”
“Like us? Don’t put me in your, and his, mess.”
“You’re right in calling it a mess.” She turned on the radio, pulled him into herself, and began to slow dance. She kissed his neck, bare feet shuffling across the hardwood floor. “You’re mom asked me to take care of you.” She rubbed his back. “This is the only way I know how.”
“Have you had sex with him, too?” Braden stepped backward. “You can tell me.”
“Tell me first what it is you want me to help you with.”
“I’ll tell you tomorrow.”
“Tell me now.”
“Did you have sex with him?”
“I have sex with everybody, Braden.” She started the shower. “Now tell me what it is you want me to do.”
“I want you to help me fill in the flower beds, rock gardens, and bird feeder at our house. I want them to be plentiful and healthy and colorful. And then I want you to tell him to not sell my mother’s car and that you don’t him to go with you to Pittsburgh.”
“Those aren’t my calls to make.”
“Either tell him or I’m gonna tell mother about you and dad.”
“She won’t understand what you’re saying.”
“So how bad is she?”
“Have you been to see her yet?”
“I’m waiting for dad.”
“You shouldn’t wait for him. You should go on your own.”
“I don’t want to go on my own. You go with me. Let’s go right now.”
“I can’t go with you.”
“Why not?’
“Because there’s nothing left to see.”

Thursday

“Ready to go visit mother?” Braden asked his father.
“I don’t feel good today,” his father said. “Let’s go visit your mother tomorrow.”
“Promise?”
“What? Are you four? I said tomorrow so tomorrow it is.”

Braden drove away fast, wondering if his mother’s car had ever been driven with such force. He walked into Candice’s kitchen and grabbed the bottle of wine. Candice was humming in the shower. He turned up the radio and threw the bottle into the shower. The sound of breaking glass mixed with running water made him smile. But he wasn’t happy. How could he be? Now. Or ever.

“What the fuck?” Candice screamed, slipping and falling, taking the shower curtain with her as she fell to the floor. Real. In the flesh. Accomplished.

Friday

Two years later — mother, father, and Candice gone — Braden planted lots of flowers and listened to tons of 1970’s music in the car and house in which he’d grown up and inherited from his mother. It’d been her car and house all along. He didn’t recognize the songs, but he very much liked the dance.


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