This time I received some advice to add more of my usual satire and political commentary, but this story is actually a deliberate departure from that style. I believe my target audience will appreciate a story that takes the chicken soup for the soul recipe and adds a little flavor of the supernatural. In this version I replaced the protagonist introduction at the beginning with a more action-oriented revision. I also added a dog, “Barkley Cudgel.” It took me about 30 minutes.
I think it would be a lie to tell you that I fully understand just what happened at the Cudgel residence on 24 Pine Way at the end of September. The house on 24 Pine Way was a small one – one story, brick siding, white shutters and a shallow-pitched roof. A pickup truck stood in the yard, rusted through and overgrown with weeds.
My phone chimed 11:00 AM, and I opened my glove compartment. The army discharge papers I had crammed carelessly in came tumbling out. Doctors notes spilled into the passenger seat, “the patient shows damage to his motor control centers, but with regular treatment can expect partial recovery within five years.” Ugh, don’t remind me. I cursed under my breath and fumbled for my pills, which fell under the seat. I had to get on my hands and knees to get the foul-smelling pills that stuck in my throat and made me feel sluggish all day. The indoor handle on the driver side of my twenty-year-old Corolla broke off a couple months ago, so I had become adept at sliding across and exiting the passenger side.
The doorbell to the Cudgel residence did nothing when I pressed it, so I knocked. Evamae Cudgel shouted to her son Gary to get the door. Their dog, listed as “Barkley Cudgel” on my form, sprinted forward and howled until the door opened. Barkley, a black and white pit, easily seventy pounds, panted in a way that made him look like he had a big smile on his face. He whined and hopped up and down, as if he wanted desperately to come closer to me but for some reason could not. Evamae herself was rushing down the steps on her cane when I stepped inside.
“Come in, come in, Doctor!” Evamae gestured a forceful command to entry with her left arm, the right still on her cane as she finally descended to the bottom step. Her hair was white tinged with flamboyant purple. The wrinkles on her face were all from smiling.
“You know me?” I asked, surprised.
“Of course we know you, Doctor Silver,” she chided in an energetic Western North Carolina accent. “We do read the emails they send us. Come in! Come in! You’re letting the heat in.”
I reddened. I closed the door behind me and waited for Evamae to indicate where I should go next. Barkley lay down, then leapt up again and rushed forward to lick my hands, free of his mysterious restraints. I went to my knees and ran an unsteady hand across the short fur on his back as he continued to hop and try to lick my face. Evamae made her way to the right and I followed her into the living room.
As I came in, I heard a rattling noise of glassware. It was a tink tink tink coming from another room. “Gary,” Evamae uttered a sharp rebuke to the man sitting in an easy chair so motionless I had not even noticed him at first, “stop fidgeting.” Gary Cudgel, balding and obese in an enormous sweater, turned his head and showed his broad, blank face. He gave his mother an absent look. In another few moments, the sound stopped.
“Gary,” Evamae ordered, jabbing a finger in my direction, “greet Dr. Silver.”
I stepped back and raised my hands, “Really, it’s fine.”
“Dr. Silver, you’re a gentleman, but Gary has to be polite.” Evamae glared at her son, “Gary?”
“Hullo, Dr. Silver,” Gary said in a slow, guileless voice, turning to look at me. Then he gave his head three slow nods, perhaps to confirm to himself that he had completed his task of delivering greeting, and turned back to his set position in the easy chair.
“Give him some time, Doctor. He’ll open right up. Please take a seat behind the coffee table.”
I had nothing to say, so I just nodded and sat in a cheap plastic folding chair behind a squat table with a red-and-white plaid tablecloth. Barkley laid down next to Gary’s easy chair. “I wanted to go over with you the benefits you’ll be receiving under the new rules. Mostly everything has stayed the same, but I’m going to make sure you make the necessary updates to your status so you and your son don’t lose any coverage.”
Evamae smiled.”Thank you dear.” The house creaked, settling into its foundations, and she turned and snapped, “Gary!”
Gary’s face gave no indication Evamae had been heard, but the old woman seemed satisfied. Barkley whined, then he rolled over on his back, panting and kicking his leg, his tongue lolling out from his huge smile. I stared at him from the corner of my eye as pulled out my heavy government-issued laptop and pried it open. “Mrs. Cudgel, you are widowed?”
“Yes, Doctor,” said Evamae, “do call me Evamae.”
“Certainly. Please call me Philip, then. ‘Doctor’ is my mother’s name.”
Evamae chuckled obligingly at my joke, “Philip, I reckon you’re gonna ask me if this one still can’t take care of himself?”
I glanced at Gary, wondering if he minded his mother speaking so casually about him within his hearing. He didn’t seem to be aware of what was happening.
“He can’t,” Evamae answered the question, “the side effects of the medication.” She was right that I needed to ask, of course. I marked it on my form.
“It’s much better than the alternative, of course. Schizophrenia is a terrible business, I assure you he’s much happier this way.” Evamae assured me, “Why don’t I put some tea on?”
I nodded and Evamae stood to go to the kitchen. Barkley rolled back onto his belly and whined. “Ma,” said Gary, “can I go out for a smoke?”
“Go on, dear. Only one cigarette. Our friend Philip here is going to have some questions for you soon. Take the dog with you.”
“Yeah, Ma,” Gary agreed, leaving the room. Barkley’s smile vanished and he moved his weight back onto his haunches so all of his legs were pointing toward Gary. He had moved his weight so far back it looked as if he should fall backward, but he didn’t. I watched him whine and walk behind Gary in this awkward position until they were both outside.
“Use your hands, Gary. Come ask me questions in the kitchen, Philip. I suppose you’re wondering if I have a job? Taking care of this one is full time.” She nodded towards the porch.
I checked off the box on my form. The conversation continued in this way, Evamae rattling off a memorized list of the questions on my form and offering her colorful answer to each. My hand was shaking more than I liked, and I tried not to let it worry me. The stress would lead to more shaking and a vicious cycle.
“Many of your benefits are moving to the state plan, Evamae. Are you registered with the state elder care and disability service?” I watched Evamae dump a cup full of sugar into her tea and thought about the diabetes she had listed on her form. I wasn’t here to change this family’s habits, though.
I accepted a mug that said “You Got This” adorned in flowers and birds. Evamae pressed her lips together, “How do I do that?”
I smiled, “I’ll pull up the website. It will only take a few minutes if you have all your information – driver’s license number and all that.”
“Do I need to get my driver’s license? It’s upstairs. Wait here a moment.”
Evamae grabbed her cane and left the room. I basked in the glow of knowing their lives would be better for my visit. It made me feel I could still be useful. I lifted the tea to my lips, but it was much too hot. My hand trembled as I tried to put it down again, and I grit my teeth as the hot tea sloshed out onto my wrist.
Irrationally, my failure to set the tea down properly made me want to assert my mastery over it even more. I took it in my steadier left hand and brought it to my lips to blow on it, when I saw out of the corner of my eye a massive figure standing in the doorway. I startled and let out a gasp. The mug left me entirely, but it’s path downward was not a sensible one. Instead of tipping and spilling its contents, it fell straight down and settled on my leg. I stared at it for a moment before snatching it out of its preternatural balancing act and placing it with utmost care back on the table.
Barkley stood at my side, licking my hand. I looked back at Gary, who stank of tobacco and had a smile on his wide, unassuming face for the first time. “Be careful, Doctor.” he intoned.
Then we heard the shriek. “Gary!” Evamae’s shout was not of chastisement but of terror. Barkley’s claws scrabbled on the kitchen tile and he fell onto his side before he managed to spring back up and dash to his master. I leapt from my seat to rush to the stairs, but Gary just stood where he was, his look transformed into one of intense concentration.
By the time I made it to the stairs, Evamae was at the bottom face down, her decrepit arms and legs splayed to all sides. Her white hair covered anything I could see of her face. Her cane was a few steps down from the landing. Incongruously, Barkley sat at her side and grinned, as if perversely pleased by the tragedy. Its expression sickened me.
This was my doing. I sent her up those stairs. Why didn’t I think to help her, or even go up and get the information myself? I just sat like an idiot in the kitchen in a pathetic fight with a mug of hot tea. I cursed my own defective, damaged brain. Good lord, I was no help to anyone at all.
“Evamae?” I ventured.
Evamae spoke at full volume. “Could you help me up, Philip? I’m sure I’m a very amusing sight right now, but it really is rude to stare.”
“Oh,” I took a knee and grabbed her hand, helping her get her legs under her and stand up again. Barkley hopped onto all fours again and barked in a high pitch, dancing all around. “Are you hurt?”
“Do I look hurt, Doctor?” Evamae stood straight and put one arm up behind her head as if she were modeling for me, “give me your professional opinion.” It boggled my mind – there was not a scratch on her.
“I – well, no.” I stammered, “but this is no laughing matter, but I’m just a nurse practitioner. You should see someone with more experience in – um – geriatrics.”
“Bah,” Evamae chuckled, “if you think I’m fine that’s all the expert opinion I need,” She patted me on the arm. “I have my driver’s license. Shall we get this done?”
She pressed past me to the kitchen before I could respond. I hurried after her and found her with her arms around her gigantic son, two heads taller than she. “You smell terrible, boy,” she muttered, “I want you to go take a bath as soon as you get a moment.”
“Yes, Ma.” Gary Cudgel mumbled, “Right away.”
A couple hours later, when I let myself out of the house, it hardly surprised me that Barkley whined and hopped a few feet away and the door closed and locked behind me seemingly of its own accord. “What an impressive son you have Mrs. Cudgel,” I chuckled as I fumbled with the keys to my beat up old car, “you must be so proud.”