Here’s a revised version of the first chapter of my upcoming novel, Threads. I hope you like reading this sneak preview as much as I liked writing it, and any and all comments are welcome. Just keep in mind that nothing here is written in stone, and some elements are subject to change. That being said, enjoy!
People said life was short, but that wasn’t always true. Sometimes it stretched on forever, like an endless, rutted road.
Rafe Hadley slumped in his wheelchair and stared out at the cold January sunlight shafting through the window and falling across the faded green tile of his room. Wheel of Fortune blared from the TV mounted on the wall and there wasn’t a goddamned thing Rafe could do about it. A nurse had turned it on to keep him company, their notion of activities here at Shady Acres.
Some fool woman on the TV jumped up and down and screamed like her ass was on fire because she had won five hundred dollars, and that high and mighty Pat Sajak was grinning like a goat. Rafe huffed and shook his head in disgust. Day after day, week after week, they parked him in front of this idiot box, and Rafe sometimes thought his last couple of remaining marbles would come rolling out his ears and go bouncing across that green tile. He cursed his crippled body for denying him the pleasure of rising and taking a hammer to the damnable thing. But he remained still as a stump below the neck, unable to lift so much as a finger. A cry of fury and frustration boiled up from his belly, only to pass his lips as nothing more than a whimper.
For the umpteenth time, Rafe yearned for his old radio (always tuned to the local classic country station) but it had gone on the fritz three months ago. He could not ask for another one, the ALS having silenced his tongue as well as crippling his body, and no one had ever offered. So now Rafe’s life—if you wanted to call it that—had become an endless parade of game shows, talk TV, and toilet paper commercials.
“Hello there, Mr. Hadley.”
Rafe swiveled his head toward the open door. That crazy old Dolores Johnson stood in the entrance to his room. She was stark naked, her blue-veined bosoms hanging down to her doughy waist like two deflated balloons. The hair on her skull was a wiry gray nest, a fair match for the lesser thatch between her fish belly-white legs. She stood on scaly flat feet with long yellowish-brown toenails that reminded Rafe of an old bull horn he once owned. Her eyes burned with insanity.
“Fine afternoon, isn’t it?” she said.
“Perhaps you’d like to walk with me in the garden after supper.”
Rafe stared. There was no garden anywhere at Shady Acres. And had there been he sure as hell wouldn’t be ambling through it anytime soon. Go away, he thought.
Two nurses appeared and fetched Dolores. They escorted her back to her room with no apology or word of greeting at all to Rafe. Once Dolores had gone, though, Rafe was surprised to find himself disappointed at her departure. Her sudden exhibition had at least been a change of routine, something to break up the constant, suffocating monotony.
The worst part about being eighty-three, and what they called infirm, was the feeling of worthlessness. It wasn’t only the godawful boredom, or that the walls pressed in on every side until you were sure you’d go right out of your gourd. It was more than that. If you could do something—anything—you had the chance to earn some respect. And respect was important. More important than love or money. But at Shady Acres respect was in short supply, as was compassion, which left Rafe up Shit Creek with nary a paddle.
The nurses returned to transfer Rafe to his bed and change his diaper, an act that never failed to mortify him. He kept his eyes fixed on the ceiling while the two women, one white, the other colored, tended to him. He was especially shamed to be so disgraced in front of the colored woman. Rafe had never been a prejudiced man, but he’d learned early on from his pap that whites and coloreds had no business mixing. It wasn’t natural. Rafe himself had nothing against them. In the summer of 1937 he saw a black man lynched in Greenville, Kentucky. The young man was a soldier on furlough who’d had the poor judgment to stop at the Piggly Wiggly on his way through town. There he had socialized with Antoinette Purdy who was working behind the counter. Antoinette was also the preacher’s daughter, and a white girl of seventeen. Two hours later, ten-year-old Rafe sat on a split-rail fence, munching an apple and watching as a bunch of piss-drunk Klansmen threw a rope over a thick sycamore branch and strung the sorry bastard up, the man weeping and wailing right up to the end. Part of Rafe felt sorry for the colored soldier, but another part of him figured the man had it coming. He should never have shown his face in that town. Or had the gall to trifle with a white girl. So Rafe sat there and watched it happen and never said a word. But he didn’t pitch in, either, and he thought that accounted for something.
Rafe wondered what those white hangmen would say about the new black president. He reckoned he had a pretty good idea.
The nurses prattled on with not a word to him. When they had finished and gone Rafe looked at the TV. Family Feud was on. He sighed and stared out the window. A dark cloud had swallowed the sun, casting the town of Evansville, Indiana—or rather his framed view of it, a brooding abandoned brick warehouse across West Franklin Street—into gloom.
After a while, giving in to sheer boredom, he dozed off.
He woke to darkness pressing against the window and a soft clinking sound at the foot of his bed. It was Darryl, the night orderly, setting Rafe’s supper on the tray table. Rafe felt the familiar mix of dread and hatred. His weak heart pounded as he braced himself for whatever horrors Darryl had in store for this evening.
“Hey there, you old cocksucker,” Darryl said, a good-natured grin on his moon-shaped face. “Time for din-din.”
Darryl took the bed’s clicker and raised Rafe to a sitting position. He put the railing down and rolled the table forward. After switching on the headboard lamp, bathing Rafe in light the color of murky piss, he lifted the metal plate cover and set it aside. Rafe looked at the tray: a piece of liver as tough as boot leather; a stingy scoop of mashed potatoes he knew from experience would taste like lumpy wall plaster; a scattering of dry lima beans; and a glass of lukewarm milk to wash it all down. It reminded him of an old joke: One lady says, “The food here is terrible.” And the other lady says, “Yeah, and such small portions.”
But Rafe was hungry.
“Mmmm—mmm,” Darryl said, and smacked his lips. “Looks good.” He stole a glance at the open door. Beyond it the hallway stood dim and empty. A grin crept over his face as he turned back toward Rafe. “It could prolly use a little sauce, though, don’tcha think?”
Rafe watched as Darryl hawked up phlegm from the back of his throat and spat a thick glob of goo onto the liver. Darryl took the fork from the tray and used it to smear a coating of slime over the rest of the food on the plate. His grin stretched wider as he shoveled up a forkful of potatoes with a single lima bean stuck straight up on top—like a tiny King of the Hill, Rafe thought—and brought it toward Rafe’s mouth.
“Just like Mom used to make, huh?”
Rafe clamped his mouth shut and drew his head back, staring at the lump in disgust.
Darryl looked put out. “What, you don’t want none?”
Rafe looked out the window at the dark.
“Well—” Darryl shrugged. “—we can’t let it go to waste. That’d be a sin.” With that, he drew up a chair and dug in. But he kept one eye on the doorway the whole time. Darryl deprived Rafe of food only once or twice a week; wouldn’t do to let a resident starve to death. But the orderly had plenty of other amusements in his cruel bag of tricks.
“So,” he said around a mouthful of potatoes, “I bet it sucks, having to lay there day in and day out, can’t even scratch an itch. Or play with your pecker.”
Rafe stared out the window. He knew the drill.
“Ah, a dried up old fucker like you prolly ain’t got no more lead in your pencil, anyway.” Then Darryl said, “‘Course, I got cock enough for both of us.”
Rafe jerked his head around at this new tack. Darryl’s eyes danced in the dimness. He knew he’d hit a nerve. He lowered his right hand to his crotch, began massaging himself. “Maybe I’ll give you a little taste.”
If Rafe had his way, Darryl would have dropped dead as a turd right then and there. Rafe wished it harder than he’d ever wished anything in his life.
No. He wanted more than that. He wanted Darryl to suffer. Rafe eyed his tormentor with a hatred so red hot he felt his own face burning. Darryl smiled back pleasantly. He stopped rubbing himself.
“There’s nothing you can do,” he said.
Rafe looked away, angry tears scalding his eyes.
Darryl glanced at the doorway, then back at Rafe again. “Time’s getting closer,” he said, and Rafe waited to hear the same words he heard every night Darryl was on shift. “One of these nights I’m gonna sneak in here, quiet as a spider, and smother you with that smelly old pillow of yours. Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow.” He shrugged like it didn’t matter either way.
Go on, Rafe thought. Do it now. Have done with it.
Didn’t this fool get it? Didn’t he understand he’d be doing Rafe a kindness?
Darryl set the plate down, gulped Rafe’s milk, and stood up. He clicked off the headboard lamp, and in the sudden half-light Rafe had the sensation he was looking into the eyes of a rabid dog. Darryl collected the tray and headed out the door, cooing as he went, “See you later, sweet p-tater.”
Rafe lay in the darkness, his hunger pangs causing his stomach to clench like a fist. In a world of hurt, his pap would have said, as in, I’m gon’ put you in a world of hurt, you no ‘count little sumbitch. But like Darryl said, there was nothing Rafe could do. So he simply bore it, as he had born all the other troubles in his life: the early days with his pap; starving on the road after he had lit out on his own at fifteen; his time in Joliet.
After a time, a shadow darkened the doorway as a figure stepped into the room. It appeared Darryl was back for more.
But when the figure moved into the wedge of light at the foot of his bed, Rafe saw it wasn’t the orderly at all, but the corpse of the colored soldier they’d hanged from a tree in Greenville, Kentucky over seventy years ago.