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ADELAIDE Independent Bimonthly Literary Magazine / Revista Literária Independente Bimensal, New York / Lisboa, Online Edition  

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE TREE REMEMBERS

By Richard Key

 

 

 

            We were on the outskirts of Shreveport when it became clear that the next exit or two would be our last opportunity for lunch. I had lost all my credibility for predicting fast food exits, and the troops were deep into their Valley Forge routine. My watch said ten till three.

Wendy’s won by a vote of two to one over Burger King. I abstained at first but then had to break the tie. Derek lost because I knew he wouldn’t grouse as much as his older sister, Stephanie. Food. They basically wanted food and here it was. If their mother were with us, she would have had snacks in her purse for just such an occasion: SweeTARTS, raisins, little bags of peanuts and pretzels saved from remote airplane rides. But we had dropped her off at her sister’s house in Texas, and I was now in charge of hunting and gathering.

Few actual customers were inside, and it took no time at all to be seated with our sandwiches and drinks. A group of twenty or so workers assembled in one half of the dining room, some sitting and some standing, while a middle-aged lady with a gravelly voice lectured them on Wendy’s protocol. After a minute or two, we were the only customers remaining and could not help but hear the whole proceedings.

“Some of the day shift people have complained that the chili meat is not thawed out when they come in. If you are on the night shift, it is your responsibility to take the meat out of the freezer and let it thaw out.” At this point she wagged her index finger around at her audience. “From now on take the meat out of the freezer for the next shift, or you’re gonna git wrote up.”

Derek slurped on his straw and wagged his forefinger at Stephanie, who promptly grabbed it and bent it backward. I was savoring my spicy chicken sandwich. Nothing elevates fast food into the higher ranks of cuisine like fierce hunger. The lady manager continued her sermon.

“And speaking of the late shift, if you’re on evening or night shifts, starting next week there will be unannounced visits by me or Mr. Ken, so be forewarned. If you’re a supervisor on those shifts, you better have all your ducks in a row and they better be quackin’.”

Derek could not help himself. “Quack.”

“Shh.”

“Quack.” Then giggles.

“Stop it!”

“Quack-quack.”

“That’s it. We’re leaving. Come on.” I gave the lecturing woman a look of parental exasperation and we exited.

As we settled in for the next leg of the trip, I thought I should use the opportunity to make a point. “What did we learn back there, kids?”

Stephanie piped up, “That if you get French fries after three o’clock, they’re cold and limp.”

“No. What we learned was that if you don’t study hard in school, you could end up with a job in a fast food restaurant where the manager will always be trying to sneak up and catch you goofing off so he can fire you.”

“I think it’d be cool,” Derek chimed in. “You could have ice cream whenever you want.”

“What would be cooler would be to have a professional job like a doctor or a nurse where you get to help people and don’t have managers on your case all the time.”

There was silence so either the message was being mulled over, or it seeped out into the warm Louisiana breeze, aided by a couple of eye rolls.

Back on the interstate, a little east of Shreveport, we passed the carnage of an animal heaped up on the right shoulder of the road.

“Ugh!” declared Stephanie.

“It’s a kangaroo!” yelled Derek.

“It’s not a kangaroo,” I said. “It’s a deer.”

“It had a long tail!” he protested.

“How many kangaroos do you think they have here in Louisiana, son?”

“One less than they used to have.”

“Think about it. The only place with kangaroos around here would be the zoo in Baton Rouge. I don’t know if Shreveport even has a zoo. But anyway, they’d have to do a lot of hopping to get this far away.” Silence in the back seat. “And gators would probably get him when he crossed the swamp,” I added to solidify my case.

Derek thought for a moment and then added, “Yeah. Gators would have got him. But it sure looked like a kangaroo.”

Somewhere between Shreveport and Monroe, I developed a discomfort in my left side and back. At first I attributed it to sitting funny and spinal fatigue. But no amount of repositioning seemed to help. It was becoming hard to concentrate on the road. I stopped off at a drugstore in Monroe to get a bottle of Advil. I took three of the things, even though they tell you two is the limit.

“Are you okay, Dad?” my daughter asked.

“I think I will be after these take effect. I’m not sure what’s going on.”

But by the time we reached the Mississippi River, I had a pretty good idea: kidney stone. My brother had one a few years ago, and his description was much like this. I was beginning to writhe and sweat.

“Kids, I’m going to have to pull over. Stephanie, dear, call your mom and tell her I’m going to the hospital.”

She did so and then replied, “She says she’s coming over here.”

“No. Tell her I’ll be all right once they bust up this stone. Here, let me talk to her.”

I told Paula I couldn’t make it back to Jackson and we were in Vicksburg. My mom could come over and get the kids, and I should be out in a day or so. That way she could stay in Dallas and take care of her sister, who was recovering from an accident. She agreed but said she would fly back if anything happened. I saw a sign by the highway and followed the directions to Mercy Hospital.

“I have a kidney stone,” I told the nice lady at the ER check-in station. You might think that would exempt me from the five pages of paperwork but you would be wrong. Three hours, two examinations, urinalysis, blood work, and an ultrasound later, the first doctor I saw told me, “Looks like you have a kidney stone, Mr. Gage. That’s the good news—it’s not a tumor or an aneurysm. The bad news is the lithotripsy machine is on the blink. They told me someone is coming up from New Orleans tomorrow to take a look at it.”

I took the news pretty well. My options were to wait for the stone to pass on its own and strain my pee to try and catch it. Or wait for the machine to get fixed. Or drive to Jackson to another facility. But driving while on narcotics is discouraged, and it became clear that the only sensible option was to stay put, stay medicated, and wait for either the stone or the repairman. I started drinking tons of water. Mom came up from Brookhaven and got the children. Paula texted often to check on my status, and I sat in a hospital room watching Sunday night television.

I spent the whole next day alone with no progress, and a nurse informed me that I wasn’t officially admitted to the hospital but was under “observation” so that the insurance company would pay. After twenty-four hours I would either need to be sent home or have some reason to be admitted.
I got a copy of the local newspaper, and on page two there was a sad story about a kangaroo and two wallabies that escaped from someone’s farm near Bossier City, Louisiana. The two wallabies were captured, but the kangaroo was hit by a truck on I-20. Said this family had fifty acres of land where they kept exotic animals. Someone left the gate open. Dang if Derek wasn’t right. I made a mental note to tell him as soon as he turns twenty-one. Oh, all right, eighteen.

I put the paper down and pondered my situation. I felt a vague uneasiness being stuck in Vicksburg, a city one of my ancestors helped defeat during the siege as part of the Ohio 47th Infantry Division fighting under General Grant. Although I was now a second-generation Southerner, these people have long memories. So even if the battle that almost wiped them off the map was the main thing that put them on the map, I wasn’t sure if all was forgiven. I took the kids to visit the national battlefield a couple of years ago, and at the Ohio monument I relayed the story of their distant relative, Captain Jeremiah Gage.

As it turns out, the urologist, Dr. Ben Sword, was a Civil War buff, and his great-great-great-grandfather was the city’s newspaper editor during the war.

“Is there still some animosity about the war here?” I probed.

“Well,” he answered, “what’s that saying? The ax forgets but the tree remembers? But you can’t hang on to grudges forever. After a while they pile up, and you have to let some go. My Granny Sword, though, now she did carry a grudge. She participated in the hundred-year commemoration of the battle of Vicksburg. I wasn’t even born yet back in sixty-three, but if you wanted to get her hackles up, just bring up the war. I’ll never touch a fifty-dollar bill as long as they have a picture of that drunken so-and-so on the front,she used to say, except for the so-and-so, which is the sanitized version.”

They must’ve found a reason to admit me, because I fell into a deep sleep that passed the time limit. I dreamt that Union forces had surrounded the hospital and wouldn’t leave until I surrendered. Tuesday morning I was awakened by severe flank pain, and I knew this was it—I was in active labor. I strained my urine and there it was, a cannonball the size of a BB. Not thirty minutes later Dr. Sword entered my room.

“Good news! The lithotripsy machine is fixed. You’ll be the first to test it out.”

I handed him the cup with the stone. “I have better news.”

***

Mom and the kids arrived later as I was being released. The doctor came in to instruct me on things I could do to prevent stones in the future and to tell me they sent off the little troublemaker to the lab to get analyzed. Two blue-coated ladies came into the room as he was talking, checked a couple of things at the hand-washing station, and exited.

“Excuse all the hustle and bustle around here,” said Dr. Sword. “The hospital inspectors dropped in this morning, unannounced of course. That’s the way it is in medicine these days. Regulators and government bureaucrats sneaking around, checking on everything to make sure you’re not incompetent.”

“They want to see if you have all your ducks in a row?” I asked.

“Exactly,” he replied.

Derek looked up at Dr. Sword. “Quack.”

The doctor held his forefinger up to his lips. “Shh. Wait for the inspectors to leave before you call me that.”

The doctor exited and we gathered my belongings to be discharged. I had to excuse myself for one last trip to the bathroom as the gallons I consumed continued to wind their way through my system. Monday’s paper was still open on the bed and Mom picked it up.

“Hey, listen to this, kids. A kangaroo got hit by a car over in Louisiana. Isn’t that strange?”

“We saw it!” yelled Derek. “Dad said it was a deer.”

“Well, here’s a little secret: your daddy doesn’t know everything.”

Stephanie fell over on the bed and exclaimed, “I’m in shock.”

I finished drying my hands and yelled through the door, “Thanks, Mom!”

 

 

 

About the Author:

Richard Key

Richard Key earned his medical degree from the University of Mississippi and currently works as a pathologist in Dothan, Alabama. He has been writing essays and short stories for about ten years. His work has been published in Bacopa Literary Review, The Birmingham Arts Journal, Broken Plate, Crack The Spine, Forge, Hawaii Pacific Review, Penmen Review, Storgy, and Tusculum Review. He hopes to have a website someday. And a Twitter account, and all those other things.

 

 

 

 

     
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