E
Jan/Feb 2010 Fiction

Soft Landings

by Jay Baruch


"For Sale" signs, the new neighborhood flower, are blooming everywhere. I didn't start mowing neglected yards early this summer because a 25 year-old with a BA in Liberal Studies dreams of cashing in his B average for a career as a lawn stylist. But every morning I run five miles, and every morning I notice another abandoned property. Then one day my hometown appears to me as a lonely, dirty kid with lice in his hair, in desperate need of a bath and haircut, and people are content to let him stink and scratch.

I already work at a baseball camp, coaching kids to become future major leaguers. Though scouts ignore me, the fire to play pro ball eats at my gut. My mother insists this burning I feel is really an ulcer. But that's mom, a shut-in swallowed up by depression after my father's death six years ago.

I still live at home. We get along better now that baseball signs have replaced my nagging. The bunt signal—tapping my nose— means showering and changing clothes might not be a bad idea. Brushing my chest and going to my belly reminds her to down a rice cake or an Ensure shake.

My father, an unlucky but eager weekend fisherman, would tell her to picture optimism leaping like salmon through her veins. Once, on a weeklong whitewater fishing vacation in Idaho, he described how salmon jumped into his arms and bathed themselves in lemon.

During a game today at the Sampson College baseball camp, I'm reminded how salmon fight the currents to spawn, but ultimately to die. I'm waving Spike home on a ball hit sharply up the middle. I'm thrilled for this bony kid. He's dragged his team down the past week, but now he'll cross the plate, tie the game, get pounded with a hero's welcome. But he sputters after rounding third. Halfway home, he stops completely. His teammates leap from the dugout, screaming so hard that when the catcher slaps the tag for the final out, I'm afraid they're going to puke. Spike defiantly finds a seat at the end of the dugout. His teammates, their mouths emptied of all words, start flinging their gum at him.

"Cut it out. Don't you know about the gum control laws?" I say, pacing the dugout. This awful joke buys time as I sort through my disappointments. I'm pissed at the gum-throwers for sure, but I'm also upset with Spike.

"Mistakes are part of learning," I say, not entirely convinced it was a mistake. "We all make mistakes. Teammates must support each other."

"Why?" a kid yells back at me.

I kick at a few pebbles. "Because we can't play this game alone."

Afterwards, Spike's mom slams me for being irresponsible, for pushing him to do something he wasn't ready for. "In my experience, kids love scoring runs," I say.

"But he didn't score, did he?" she says, giving me this look of pity that gnaws at my bones. When I return home that evening, I scrub myself raw in the shower, wearily chanting, "You're an optimistic guy. You're an optimistic guy."

 

Showered, dressed in jeans and golf shirt, I hold the bat high, take my stance on the porch, and stare down my reflection in the front door storm glass. The major league pitcher I pretend to be facing throws a fastball 95 miles per hour, pops the 60 feet 6 inches from mound to home plate in four-tenths of a second. He'll use my anticipation against me, set me up with slow junk—curves, change-ups that are never as pretty as they appear. The ball's thirty feet away. I have a quarter of a second to pull the trigger, to believe what I see. "Don't commit too early," I remind myself. "Let the ball travel."

Soft hands and baseball smarts kept me in the starting line-up at second base all four years in college. By now, most guys in my situation—older, medium height, soft body, streaky bat—have the good sense to move on. I'm giving myself until the end of the summer to snag a try-out with a pro club. Before her mind imploded, my mother used to say it takes desire and imagination to recognize one's critical limitations.

 

A grating horn breaks my focus. What sounds like a wild animal in pain belongs to Thistle's VW bus, a rust-trap bought at a police auction years before. "What's up, Cape?" she says, as if she stops by all the time. She jumps from the VW, slams the door. I lean on the bat, take slow breaths. Dressed in work clothes—long black skirt, white blouse and black heels—she must be the sexiest bookkeeper on the planet. Her dark hair is short, no longer the crazy ponytail down to her lower back. We used to hang out in our asexual years. Since then, we've exchanged waves and hellos, always in passing. Now her wispy body stands at the bottom of my stoop.

"Nothing much, what's up with you?" I say.

"Could I borrow you for an hour?" She appears distressed and embarrassed by it.

I take my batting stance. Her reflection joins me in the glass as she rises up the cracked cement steps. "Depends."

"I need muscle," she says. "Annie's at Trickling Creek Nursing Home. She fell. I need you to keep the nurses away while I take care of her."

She's stroking my ego. Growing up just down the street, she'd seen me pumping weights in my open garage before and after school and never adding bulk to my frame.

"What the hell is Annie doing at the Creek?"

"Cracked hip. The doctors fixed her and sent her to the Creek for rehab. But she's got a touch of dementia. The social workers say she's a serious fall risk, even if she's living with me."

"I hate the Creek." I focus on turning my hips, rolling the wrists. "Hate it."

My father was a "Creek" resident for eight years before he died. Skull crushed in a construction accident, he emerged from a coma into a world of confusions. Who was this kid claiming to be his son? Why does this depressed woman forcing pie into his mouth say she's his wife? Why doesn't the staff let him go fishing? He'd wander off in search of the creek. Eventually, they anchored him to a chair, leather clasps on his wrists and a mesh vest around his chest. He withered in restraints, but it saved him from learning the truth—a creek didn't exist. What a relief when he died. At the funeral he reclaimed his dignity. People remembered the man, not the patient.

 

We find Granny on the floor beside her bed. The jelly clots in the bloodstained towel pressed against her short silver hair make me queasy.

"Let me guess. You weren't using your walker," says Thistle.

"My bladder was bursting," she says.

Blood drips down Annie's cheek. Thistle digs into her knapsack, orders me to rip open gauze. My hands shake. I can't reconcile the Annie before me with my memories of her, gardening for hours with her sleeves rolled up. She had a sweet smile, hooded eyes, a sharp Roman nose, and little patience for chitchat. But from behind, she and Thistle could be mistaken for sisters.

"Laceration #3 opened up again. This is #3B," Thistle says to Annie, loud enough for the staff to hear. Thistle has catalogued each laceration zig-zagging across Annie's face and scalp since she entered Trickling Creek a month before. Thistle bandages madly, ignores requests from people dressed in scrubs to step aside. Tense moments pass before they push her away, unroll Thistle's work and start over.

I feel waves of heat beating off Thistle's body.

Annie's eyes dart to me. I avoid her gaze, afraid she can read my animal fear of ever becoming as dependent as she is.

"Who are you?"

"Cape," Thistle says. "From down the street."

"Cape?" She pauses as if my memory is tucked away in a place that is difficult to reach. "The baseball player?"

"Yes, ma'am," I say. Once proud of this association, it now feels fraudulent.

"Why are you here?"

I give Thistle a probing look. "That's an excellent question."

 

We follow the ambulance to the emergency department. The silence drowns out the VW's clanking engine. Thistle and I had traveled in different circles in school—mine included sports geeks who watched ESPN on Friday and Saturday nights, drinking beer—dateless experts of women. Thistle worked most nights, either waitressing at Carlati's Pizza Pub or tutoring math. She was mysterious, mature, and preoccupied. Annie once chased the captain of the basketball team from her porch with a crowbar.

Thistle and I knew more about each other than we cared to admit. Rumors floated above the street. When the rental car agency promoted Thistle's mom to a management position—but in Tucson—along with her supervisor boyfriend, she didn't ask Thistle to join her in the new life. Annie kicked out the mom and changed the locks. We were nine or ten at the time. Mothers didn't leave their kids. Grandmothers weren't like Annie, who left her husband the first time he hit her, and told stories about the many times she was arrested and clubbed, protesting Vietnam.

"She'll be alright," I say. "Annie's a fighter."

Thistle's large brown eyes are luminous with hurt.

"I asked you to keep the nurses away from her. Did you do that?"

"They were standing around her when we arrived. They work there."

We stop at a traffic light before the hospital entrance.

"Some are good, and some... " She rubs her mouth. "I needed you."

"You asked me to come, and I did. I was working on my swing."

"Do you really believe you're a prospect at what, twenty-five?"

"I'm trying to stay optimistic," I say, burying my hurt in a long pause. "For ten years we've barely rubbed two sentences together. Now you act as if I've let you down?"

Thistle clutches. The van lurches and screeches into the hospital parking lot.

"I need a cigarette."

"You still smoke? I figured you smoked in high school to give your voice a sexy edge."

Thistle marches into the ER two steps ahead of me.

"I smoked for six years. Quitting wasn't easy," she says, arms crossed. She stops, turns. "It was fucking hard."

Anger flashes off her face, then curiosity and wonder. Opposing pitchers click through these expressions after I've jacked their nastiest pitch out of the yard.

 

The ER nurses know Annie, greet her affectionately. They smile stiffly at Thistle. "She needs sutures, not staples," Thistle tells the doctor. "A two layer closure."

Bruises ring Annie's eyes; scars run about her face.

"You can go," Thistle says to me, her arms folded as if fighting a chill.

"Let Cape stay," says Annie, her face now covered by a sterile drape. "Unless you have some place you need to be."

"Not really," I say.

"That's sad," says Annie. "You're too young to have nothing to do."

What fills my time feels inconsequential. I don't tell Annie about the baseball league I play in three nights a week. Or how this past spring, I struck deals with realtors and banks to tend to the wild lawns on unsellable and foreclosed properties, those where weather-beaten "For Sale" signs had For Ever spray-painted at the bottom, or For Saken or ForePlay to Decay. If I find out who did this, I'll kick his ass. Negativity doesn't push people to buy houses.

"Say Cape," asks Annie. "Is your mom still making those incredible apple pies?"

"Not so much."

"Nobody makes pies anymore," she says. "Why's that?"

The doctor stops suturing, raises her head thoughtfully.

"Maybe people don't eat much pie anymore," says the doctor.

"Too bad," says Annie, "I wouldn't fall down as much if people ate pie."

I'm puzzled. The doctor tilts her head. Thistle sighs. Was this cryptic wisdom, a nut worth cracking, or thoughts from a tired mind we should respectfully let float away?

"Why did she stop baking pies?" Annie says.

"Arthritis in her hands," I lie. "She'd roll her own dough. It hurt too much."

I don't talk about my mother's depression, her love for a man lost to us. She stopped baking pies, my father's favorite dessert, because he chewed with a tight, pleasing expression, as if he knew he should be enjoying it more than he was.

 

The next day at baseball camp, I find Spike. "Why did you stop?" I ask. "All you had to do was run home. Run a straight line. Move those legs."

"I didn't feel like it," he says. He's handsome with sandy-blonde hair and a distracted quietness seen in geniuses and psychopaths.

"C'mon," I say, chuckling. "Rarely is success in life such an easy dash. Rarely does it require more effort to fail."

Fail. People dance around the word nowadays, but I boldly say it. Spike looks around, as if bored with me. "Can I go to the bathroom, Coach?"

 

Spike's messing with my head. That thought torments me that evening as I rush to finish a new lawn with a camping light strapped to my forehead. Damp, knee-high grass glops the mower blade, repeatedly killing the engine. An hour job takes two. But I find calm in the brainless act of mowing lawns, the vibrating engine, the orderly wheel tracks as the mower cuts through grass and crab grass, dirt and dog shit, kid's plastic shovels and water-logged baseballs, and lately, crack vials and broken beer bottles.

Even the most devastated yards appear prouder when I'm done with them. My pulse races, my lungs burn, my spine straightens. It's easy to misuse this confidence, believe similar work and effort will bring me a shot at pro ball. I dream cautiously.

The tires of Thistle's VW scrape the curb. She flicks cigarette ash with her brick red fingernails out the window.

"Annie fell again," she says, without even a hello. "Laceration #4."

I wipe sweat from my face with the tail of my shirt. "Is she OK?"

"She asked if you'd come. She mentioned that pathetic Batman costume you wore every year for Halloween when we were kids. Maybe she thinks you can save her."

I'd knock on Thistle's door each Halloween, sweating in the cool autumn. Her smile was better than a Hershey bar. "I caught so much shit from you for that costume."

"How could I know the nickname would stick?"

I push the mower away, sulking like a kid. "Send her my best."

"You're not coming? She's asking."

"What about you?"

Thistle shrugs, drags on a cigarette. "I started smoking again," she says. "Stress."

I swat at mosquitoes diving around my head. The air feels heavy and electric and smells the way summers used to smell. Charcoal clouds hold an evening shower. A long forgotten memory from high school cracks like lightning.

"We were in high school," I say to Thistle. "Annie was out for her morning walk. She found me passed out on my lawn. I was hung over, without a clue how I got there. She pulled me up, picked grass off my face, and took me back to your house. She called my mom—who thought I was still asleep—and covered for me, saying she had become woozy while out for her morning walk, that I had helped her home."

 

"Number four, definitely #4," says Thistle, stomping outside Annie's room.

"Even if we move her closer to the nurse's station," says the nurse, "that doesn't mean we can watch her all the time. We have many residents to care for."

"So you let her walk around and fall and crack her skull open?"

"She knows she's supposed to use her walker. She chooses not to."

"She has dementia," I say, in the impatient tone used on the kids when they let the ball scoot between their legs. The nurses eye me suspiciously. Thistle fires me an expression of pained surprise.

Dr. Gupta emerges from the room, pleased with himself. "The wound closed nicely with seri-strips. A visit to the ER will be unnecessary."

"Until it opens up again," says Thistle, wheeling around to face him.

"Hopefully that will not happen," he says politely.

Thistle rolls her eyes as if they weigh ten pounds.

"What should we do, Miss? We can't tie her down. People are not animals."

"I'm not saying that," says Thistle.

"What is it, then?"

Thistle fists the sides of her scalp. "She deserves... better."

Dr. Gupta has a slight paunch, intelligent eyes, thick black hair combed in a side part. He takes Thistle's hands in both of his. "We can't give her a life she finds acceptable without risk. Our hands are tied, too."

Thistle keeps shaking her head.

"We will help you make arrangements to move her to a different home if that is your wish," says Dr. Gupta. Thistle squeezes her eyes tight, as if shutting out the painful reality that I suspect undid my mother. People don't choose the Creek if they had the right health insurance or enough money. It is the best option for those without options.

Annie appears in the doorway, gauze taped above her left eye.

"What's going on out here?" she asks.

"Why can't you use your walker?" says Thistle. "Is it some kind of protest?"

Annie seems oblivious to the scolding. "Cape, could you find me some OJ?"

"Sure, Annie," I say and head off down a corridor. The lime-colored walls, the smell of urine, the steam of food trays pull me into the past. I see my father tied down and pumped with sedatives, sitting in his own piss or shit. My mother crying at the pressure sores tunneling under the skin of his back. Oh, I hated coming here. My mother did, too, but she never admitted it outright. "This is part of love, too," she'd say. Trickling Creek appears nicer now, but the pathetic seascape watercolors are still so disturbingly bad you can't help but question everything else.

 

On the way home from the Creek, I suggest that the paintings belong in a cataract museum, where viewers aren't expected to have good vision.

"The frames aren't so bad," Thistle says. "Right?"

"They are what you need them to be." I drop those words out the open window. My head is filled with memories of my father, but for the first time in years, I miss him.

"How about the best homemade pasta on the planet?" Thistle says hesitantly, testing my reaction to her offer, or uneasy with the idea that the best of anything might be within our grasp.

"Do you see that?" I say, angrily pointing to three "For Sale" signs with new work by the graffiti bandit. For Shadow. For Ensic. Fore Skin.

"It makes this ugliness bearable, don't you think?" she says.

"It's insulting. It makes bad things worse," I say.

She pulls the VW in front of Ricardo's Place, a client of hers. It's a storefront restaurant in the near-dead downtown strip, rare light behind plum-colored curtains. She moves to speak, then holds her breath. "Let's eat," she says. "Can we agree on eating?"

Ricardo grabs her shoulders, plants kisses on both cheeks. He politely sizes me up, unimpressed with my T-shirt, the dried sweat and grass stains. I try to sniff myself without appearing to be sniffing myself as he shows us to a table, using the back of empty chairs for support.

"No menus," Thistle says, as if reading what I was thinking. A loaf of crusty bread appears and a carafe of red wine.

"I knew about your dad," she says, dipping bread into olive oil, which I had never seen done before, and motions for me to do the same. "I'm sorry I never said anything."

Olive oil soaks the bread, softens the crust. These tastes and textures are fresh and complicated. Working through them, the crust cutting into my gums, the bread almost sweet, I'm surprised to discover forgiveness. "It was a long time ago," I say. "It's done."

"I can't tell who the good guys are." She sips her wine, sighs. "I think Annie's not using her walker on purpose."

"Screw that. Why would she want to take all these headers? Attention?"

"She was tough with me. The world didn't make sense, she said. I had to be prepared for that." Thistle shrugs. "She doesn't make sense."

"Why don't you take her home?" I say. "I'll pitch in. Fuck the Creek."

Thistle pulls out a pile of flat, rubbery sunflowers from her knapsack. "Annie told me they were cuttings from her garden." I hear the ache when Thistle laughs. "She cut up the shower curtain in her bathroom."

I take the small bouquet and smell a mix of sweet plastic, bleach, and mildew.

Seriousness wrinkles the corners of her eyes when she looks at me. "Why were you watching me so closely in high school?"

"Why did you ask me to the Creek?" I say, placing the sunflowers on the table.

Bowls of steaming pasta with clam sauce are set before us. She pushes hers away, grabs my hand. "Of the old group on the street, we're the only folks left," she says.

My throat tightens. She's not teasing. "So I'm the last guy on the desert island?"

"This is a desert island?" She fingers the breadbasket. "I saw you swinging your bat on the porch. You were still at it. 'How sad and comforting,' I thought."

"Sad?"

"And comforting," she quickly adds.

 

The last day of camp I pull Spike aside. "Why did you stop? Why didn't you want to score?"

"Leave me alone," he screams. His father witnesses the tantrum and casually approaches. I expect anything from a lecture to a fist across my jaw.

"Does Spike like baseball?" I ask.

"Loves it," his father says, offering an apologetic grin. "He just doesn't get it."

 

The next two weeks, Annie falls and opens up lacerations #5 and #5A. After laceration #6, which includes #5B, Thistle confronts Dr. Gupta, freezes him with a look of reckless and lethal contempt. He stands before her, his back straight, his eyes lowered.

"Does this ever end?" she asks. She freezes Dr. Gupta. Her arms hang lifelessly. We know the answer, but need to hear it spoken aloud to keep everyone accountable.

"It's OK," says Annie, taking Thistle by the shoulders. Suture tracks curl and intersect madly about her face and scalp—a map of chaos, or endless misdirection.

"Don't you hate the stink of this place?" Thistle asks Annie, asks everyone.

"It's not a flower shop," I say. Over the past few weeks, I've sensed that I'm perceived as the reasonable one. "It smells of people doing their best."

 

I hire two kids to help mow lawns. The bank alerts me that more work is coming and offers me a business loan. "Mowing lawns isn't a business," I say to Rivers, the bank's loan officer, aggravated by success I never wanted. "It pays the bills. I'm a baseball player." I played college ball against Rivers. He shakes his head, pushes across his desk a thick loan application. His expression mimics that of the Creek's nurses whenever they offered my father a paper cup filled with sedatives.

The calluses on my hands, once evidence of my dedication in the batting cage, now remind me of years of practice without success. I look up my old college coach. He picks his chin as he studies me in the batting cage. "Not bad, Cape," he says, studying the chew he spit in the dirt. "You've got the skills of someone who'll make a solid coach."

The sun burns through my neck to my spine. I feel liquid and weak.

"I might have an opening. Shitty pay but long hours."

"I'm a player, not a coach," I say. I describe my Spike problem.

He spits into the dirt again. "Jeez, Cape. He's fucking eight-years old."

 

A day later, I'm sneaking a lead off second base, pride bruised. My passion and talent now feel like cheap goods, shadows that only appear real against the background of an unimpressive life. I consider my visit to the Creek that afternoon, Annie scuffling with her walker down the corridor, back hunched, face twisted with disdain.

"That's it, Annie," Thistle cheered. "Feel the floor. The floor is your friend."

My mind snaps into the game. I take off on a single ripped into right field. The third base coach motions for me to brake at third. I slow, but don't stop completely.

Annie's walker creaked. The rubber feet squeaked. How could anyone with any pride be faulted for not wanting to be dependent on something that creaks and squeaks?

For the first time in my life, I blow through a coach's sign. I kick into gear, charge towards home. The catcher guards the plate, punches his mitt. My legs feel like cement blocks. My cleats sink into the base path. Home plate seems so far away, tucked into a dazzling sunset that for the first time feels intended for someone else. The catcher hugs the ball, lowers his center of gravity. He must see my desperation, smell my need for a collision. But I don't want to hurt him. That last thought rings through the pain when I regain consciousness. The sun, bright as a knife, stabs me in the eyes.

 

"I don't have enough reasons to come to the ER?" says Thistle, appearing frazzled when she finds me strapped to a backboard.

"The doctor says this crap is necessary until they know my neck isn't broken."

"Are you OK?"

"Hell no. I was called out."

"One of your coaches said you were supposed to hold at third."

"I didn't want to stop. If driving, I might have run a red light."

Thistle pulls back her hair. "He said you told him to call me."

My neck is locked in a rigid collar, otherwise I'd turn away. Her lips twist. She might hold my hand. Instead, she nags a nurse for an ice-pack on my head. "I'll be back," she says, grabbing her knapsack. "I need a smoke."

She leaves and takes the air with her. "Hello?" I call out. I'm tied down flat on my back, helpless. My eyes play tricks. I see coffee and blood stains on the ceiling tiles. I'm looking up at a soft floor that's pocked with holes. Falling feels like flying. "Hey!" I yell, struggling to sit up. The nurses chew me out. I risk possible paralysis if I have a neck fracture. Did I want that? Shit no. But I unsnap the buckles trapping me to the board. I tear the collar from my neck. Hands push me down. Sedatives fuzz my brain. Words fly away from me. "Get him to CT to rule out a head bleed," a doctor says.

 

I didn't want to be paralyzed. I didn't want to be difficult. I wanted a mysterious third option. One that wasn't offered and I couldn't describe, but one I'd recognize once I saw it. Doctors say I suffered a concussion. Thinking still hurts two days later. I'm wearing my skin inside out. I feel cut open. I'm scared as a kid is scared—my limbs icy and bloodless—like the time I threw a Nerf football over my brother's hands. It struck a South American ceramic bowl coveted by my mother. The bowl slid a few inches, but remained atop the end table, bowed but undamaged. Nerf allowed us to play ball indoors.

 

"You're giving Annie the green light to fall," Thistle says when I track her down outside the Creek, smoking.

"She's going down. Accept that," I say. "No walker plus no restraints equals fall."

"You're just like them. You care with cruelty."

"No. We'll cover the floor and all hard surfaces with Nerf. A Nerf ball bounces off a lamp, the lamp remains unbroken."

"Annie falls and pops back up," Thistle says, mocking my enthusiasm. "Right?" She cocks her head, studies me heartlessly. My mom is crazy, and maybe this apple didn't fall far from the tree? "You're not kidding, are you?"

The next two days I shower her with Nerf gifts. She takes the baseball, football, and basketball and pelts me with them, her face on fire. "I thought I could count on you."

 

The nursing home refuses to Nerfitize her room. Despite severe penalties and taxes and doubts, Thistle drains her retirement account and funds it herself. "Something has to be done for Annie," she says. "Gupta's talk is killing her."

Dr. Gupta says at Annie's age, there's no such thing as a soft landing.

Annie searches the web and finds chemists in Rochester who developed their own foam/rubber mixture. In a week I'm busy covering the floor of Annie's room with a cushiony orange-yellow material that is firm enough to walk upon. Soon, Annie is walking, falling, and pushing herself upright. Her room has the bright colors of a child's recreation room, the sweet chemical smell of new toys. The desk, the chairs, the small table, the bed-frame have puffed rounded edges. The room looks otherworldly, like the set of a low budget Sci-Fi movie. For the first time my deeds equal my desires.

 

A month goes by, no new injuries to Annie. No EMS transports and hospital visits. Her swollen face heals. Deep purple bruises turn green and yellow like the leaves outside, and then fade away.

"She's beginning to look like herself again," says Thistle. I smile sadly. Annie hasn't been restored to the woman I remember. Without the shockingly impressive wounds, she seems older now than ever before.

"I'm still scared of falling," Annie says, touching my arm. "Maybe you can invent something so I won't fall?"

"It's called a walker," Thistle interrupts.

 

Sitting with Thistle on my stoop one night, drinking beer, her arm occasionally brushing mine, I wonder how I find myself in opportunities built on the misfortune of others. But the growing silence, the dark windows up and down the street, the memories of what this place once was, feel like questions I'm expected to answer.

During my next visit, Annie approaches me. "It's gone," she whispers with warrior-like intensity. "The fear's gone."

Annie stretches to kiss my cheek. "Look out for Thistle." She studies me through a distant, charitable haze. Did I look at Spike this way? I don't believe I did.

 

I accept the bank's loan but also decide to give myself another year to earn a try-out with the pros. I need that possibility, as unrealistic as it may be. Without this particular slant of light, I'm like everybody else groping through the days.

Thistle's VW pulls up to my house the next day. She slams the door. She's crying.

"What's the matter?" I say.

"Annie is unconscious," she says, shaking.

"Not from a fall?" I say.

Thistle nods, throws me the keys. "I'm a mess, a complete mess."

We rush to the Creek. The medics have already left. Dr. Gupta detours to speak with us from behind the nurses' desk. "I'm sorry."

"What happened?" says Thistle.

"She ventured out of her room to the non-foam world. Very unfortunate."

"What happened?" says Thistle, trembling behind clenched teeth.

"Maybe she lost her protective reflexes." Dr. Gupta is dressed September casual, beige turtleneck and brown sport-jacket. "The neurosurgeon called. Annie has a large bleed in her brain. Her prognosis is extremely poor. You should know that." Dr. Gupta tenses as Thistle turns to leave.

I'm speechless. I desperately wish I had the words to meet a moment such as this.

"The foam wasn't a good idea," I say to Dr. Gupta when we're alone.

"It's visionary," he says to me. "The nursing home director wants to Nerfitize an entire ward. He operates many nursing homes. Golden Peaks, Violet Towers, Fern Grotto. You should agree to work with us as a consultant on the first Nerfing Home."

"You can't call it Nerfing Home. It's not Nerf," I say. Dr. Gupta's grin brushes off this detail. Isn't Trickling Creek a nursing home without a creek? Besides, didn't Gupta just say my idea is visionary? My heart feels like a tightly spinning curveball well wide of the strike zone and I'm convincing myself that it's a good pitch.

I find Thistle outside, pacing with a cigarette in her mouth, ferociously alone. "Let's get to the hospital," I say.

She tosses the cigarette, snubs it with the toe of her running shoe.

I pull the VW out the parking lot and the narrow drive. Thistle rummages through her knapsack. "Stop the car." At the entrance there's a large wooden sign, Trickling Creek Nursing Home, in fancy script lettering. She jumps out, shakes the spray can, and writes Tricky Croak. She calmly climbs back in. "You're the graffiti vandal?" I ask.

She shakes her head. "Annie started it. We needed to put up a fight, she said. After she busted her hip I kept at it. I finally understood what she meant."

"You have no right," I say.

"It feels good," she says, staring straight ahead, unblinking.

"It's vandalism. You're destroying property."

"It's a fucking sign, that's all." She throws the spray can out the window. "You happy?"

"I'm sorry," I say, unable to locate all that I'm sorry about.

Thistle coughs to fill the cracks in her voice. "She's been happy the past five weeks," she says. "She can't die now."

"She won't," I say.

Her wrist catches a tear before it dives down her cheek. Thistle pulls my hand to her lap, holds it tightly with both of hers. "You believe that?" she says.

"I do." Our fingers stumble together. "Definitely."

I work the clutch, her hand in mind. The VW grinds into first gear. My optimism never hurt this bad.

 

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