Five years ago
The dim hallway smelled of piss and detergent, and was crowded with residents in wheelchairs. Pushed against walls and forgotten, they watched him pass.
An old man grabbed his hand, stopping him. “You look just like my boy.”
He didn’t know how to respond. “Oh, yeah?” he finally got out.
The man kept hold of his hand. “Tall and broad and good-lookin’. Went to the army. Lost him in the war.”
Gideon McDougall turned fully to face him. “I’m sorry.”
The man, smiling sadly and bent, let go of his hand and began stroking his forearm like one would a puppy. It made him uncomfortable, and even sadder than he already was. He hadn’t been here in two weeks and felt like total shit because of it. But this place was tragic, beyond awful, and he couldn’t handle it.
The man appeared to be in pain from unbending, so Gideon knelt next to him. When he did the man stopped stroking his arm and released it. “Tell me about him—what was your son’s name?”
The oldster hesitated. “Justin. Yes. Justin. I think. My boy. My son.”
How long had it been since anyone talked to this guy? How long had he been in this hole?
“Tell me about Justin.”
“He’d be a few years older n’ you,” the man said unnecessarily. “Solid boy. Oh, he got in his share of trouble, make no mistake. But he always knew when enough was enough. Played football in high school and college—fullback. Tough runner. Did you play ball?”
Gideon smiled. “Yeah. Not fullback, though. Tailback.”
The man scowled. “You? You’re much too large to play tailback!”
“What school did your son play for?”
“Well, now ... let me think ...
Nope, nope. Wasn’t Michigan.
?” He shook his head. “Somewhere
back east. Big school. I think.” Ohio State
Gideon didn’t know where to go with that. The man seemed lost in thought, and the conversation appeared to be over, so he stood.
“Well ...” he began, about to wish him to have a good day, and feeling horribly guilty in the knowledge that there was absolutely no way ever to have a good day in a place like this.
“Damn war,” the man grumbled. “We had no business over there.”
“Yeah,” said Gideon, seeking a way out without seeming rude. “We never should have invaded
Iraq. They did
Iraq? ?” The man snorted. “We got no business
in Iraq Iraq!
Why would we invade Iraq?
I’m talking about Vietnam!
This isn’t World War One! Lawrence of Arabia is dead and gone! I think you woke
up on the wrong side of the bed, my boy! Ha!”
Gideon felt bad as he walked away. Before he did he patted the old-timer on his shoulder. “Have a good day, okay?”
There was absolutely no way to have a good day in this shithole. No way. Ever.
But he had left Mom in here all by herself anyway. By herself. For two weeks.
He got to her closed door but didn’t immediately walk in.
Two motherfuckin’ weeks.
He closed his eyes, turned the knob, and pushed the door open. He opened his eyes.
Mom was in bed, curled up and half-covered, facing away. He went to her and looked down at her.
He grabbed the chair next to the bed and swung it around to face her after checking her oxygen feed and making sure the tubes were properly in her nostrils.
Two weeks, he thought as he watched her sleep. Two weeks ...
He thought he should wake her, but didn’t know if he had the courage. He barely had enough to walk into this toilet!
“Do you see him?” she had asked the last time he was here fourteen days ago. Her smile was beatific. She was staring over his shoulder.
“See ... who?” he said, startled, looking behind him. No one else was in the room with them.
Her wide smile got wider. She snickered playfully. “He’s touching your shoulder.”
“Who’s touching my shoulder?” he demanded, alarmed.
She winked. “Jesus. He’s touching your shoulder. It’s so sweet ...”
Her eyes filled with tears.
He had spoken to her doctor a few days earlier.
“Her liver is failing. It’s spilling toxins into her bloodstream. She’s having hallucinations. It’s going to be difficult talking to her. She’ll be there one moment; the next she’ll be hallucinating.”
The warning didn’t help. It was one thing to hear such horrifying news. It was something else to see it.
She never looked so happy. But then her smile dissolved, though the tears remained. “I miss you. You don’t come around, and I miss you.”
He hung his head. It was true. Seeing her here ... watching her disintegrate right in front of him ...
She sniffled and reached for his hand.
“I’m sorry. I promise ... I promise I’ll come by tomorrow. I’ve ... just ... been so ... busy. I promise. Tomorrow. I promise.”
Two weeks, he thought again, staring at her back. His eyes burned. Tomorrow had come, and he had stayed away. And then twelve more had come and gone, and he had stayed away.
Marcus was in jail, and Mom’s sisters were thousands of miles away. And not just geographically. They weren’t even aware how sick she was. He hadn’t felt the urge to inform them. They wouldn’t bother making the trip anyway. None of them gave a shit.
So the only visitor she ever had was him. And he, too, hadn’t visited. She had sat in this room alone while the final awful hours of her life were eaten away by the degenerative muscle disease she’d contracted ten years ago.
“How’s Marcus doing?” she asked. “Have you gone to see him lately?”
He nodded contritely, still gazing down at his feet. “Last month. He’s ... all right. Hanging in there. They’ve scheduled a parole meeting in five months. There’s a chance they’ll release him.” He shrugged hopelessly. “We’ll see.”
“He really looks up to you, Gideon.”
She had said that every time they spoke the past year. When he moved her in here, to this shitty state-run facility, she doubled down on it. This time she added something new.
“You’re going to need to be strong for him.”
He glanced up at her, surprised. “I ... Mom...?”
The beatific smile returned. She was looking over his shoulder again. “I will,” she said, and began crying. “I will.”
She looked at him. Tears streaked down her cheeks. “Jesus told me to tell you that he loves you very much, and that Marcus will help your fiancé, that he’s a good boy. Jesus loves him too. Oh—!”
She shook weakly as she wept, and closed her eyes. “Oh Gideon, I love you. I miss you so much. Please don’t stay away. I love you. I love Marcus too. Please tell him!”
She reached for him. He stood and leaned over and hugged her. She sobbed into his shoulder. It was impossible for him not to cry as well, as much in grief as in horror at how fucked up all this was.
He didn’t have the strength to tell her that he didn’t have a fiancé. He barely had the strength to take another breath. All of it was going into his grasp of her.
He could feel her fragile form tremble in his hands. He could feel her ribs. The oxygen tube pulled against his cheek. Her gray, tangled hair smelled of age and illness. Her arms were covered in blue-gray-green bruises from the constant shots and IVs, and were so emaciated and fragile as to look like little more than glass skeletons thinly skinned over.
She shook and sniffled into his shoulder, and finally quietened down. When he released her and pulled back to look at her, he saw that she had fallen asleep, a smile once again on her face.
He fought not to flee this place at a full sprint. It felt like an acid scream rising from his anus into the bottoms of his lungs. His forehead tingled like it always did just before he puked.
Intense guilt kept him from looking at her for long. It wasn’t just that he wasn’t by her side nearly enough, but that, from his private agony, he had prayed more than once for God to take her, to end her life. On the rare occasion when he became truly honest, he acknowledged that those prayers weren’t offered just because of her suffering. On such occasions, numbering perhaps half a dozen in the past five years, he couldn’t stand the gut-clenching guilt and drank himself into a collapsing, upchucking stupor soon after.
Four years ago, he accepted a full-ride scholarship to the
He wanted to stay home and play for University of Hawaii ,
which had also offered him a full ride, to stay close to her. But Mom insisted
he go to Oregon
State University Honolulu.
“You’re far too good for OSU,” she scolded. “You’ve met the coach. He’s a jerk. He beats his players!”
“I don’t want to leave you.”
“We’ve looked at
Hawaii,” she went on.
“You’ve always wanted to go there. The program is on the way up. You’ve met the
players. The coach flew all the way here to meet you!” She reached and cupped
his cheek. “You’ve got to grow up, Gideon. Get out of this po-dunk town and
find your own way. That’s what I want for you. Marcus will look after me.”
“Marcus,” he grunted. “Marcus can barely look after himself.”
She said then what she always said when the subject of Marcus came up:
“He’s a good boy who’s had a rough life and is trying to get his shit together. I have faith in him, and you should too.”
So, very reluctantly, he went to
When the star tailback went down in the first game with a season-ending knee
injury, coach put him on the field. As a true freshman he finished the season
with fifteen touchdowns, almost fourteen hundred total yards, and a bowl
victory against where he ran for
two hundred sixty-eight yards, setting a single-game rushing record for the
program and also a bowl record, in addition to three touchdowns. He went home
State Corvallis a
hero, and was treated like a celebrity everywhere he went. Even Marcus, his
most bitter rival, came around.
“You made a believer outta me, big bro,” he said, smiling sideways in that manner he did when proven wrong about something. “Swear to Christ, I haven’t had to buy my own beer since last October!”
Talk in national sports circles began mentioning him as a dark-horse Heisman Trophy candidate in the upcoming season. Coach hooked him up with a personal trainer to keep him fit while he was home, one who actually moved from
to Corvallis to
work him out. Sports Illustrated profiled the five most interesting dark-horse Heisman
Trophy candidates and wrote: “Don’t count this Rainbow Warrior out. Gideon
McDougall is the real deal.”
Mom was getting steadily worse. During that summer he drove her to emergency, and had the ambulance come out once. That last collapse came just two days before he was to return to
to begin the new term. He had skipped summer training session practices,
mandatory for everyone else, just to stay close to her.
Last year was tough enough. Homesickness was a constant companion, so too gut-clenching worry over her health. Marcus ended up taking her to emergency in mid-October. On more than one occasion, Gideon came within moments of quitting the team, packing his bags, and flying home, even going as far as taking a taxi to the airport before his roommate and fellow player, an enormous offensive lineman named Butch, talked him out of boarding the flight. The thought of Mom dying while he played football seemed so cruelly absurd that it gave him stomach pain the team physician warned was a pre-ulcer and provided prescription medication for.
His teammates nicknamed him “The Machine” for his single-minded attention at practices and workouts, and for his commanding physical strength. When it came to game-time, he was an automaton—not because that was who he was, but because of the no-holds-barred internal battle inside him, the vision of Mom breathing her last while he played a stupid game in paradise three thousand miles away. It made him untouchable by its agony, providing an iron focus so strong that it felt like tunnel vision layered over in actual metal, and powered by a single question that burned like a brand into his brain:
What the fuck am I doing?
His teammates were a very tight-knit bunch, and cared for him. He had made real friends in
Honolulu. As for the new season,
the experts were no longer calling him a dark horse. Opposing teams were
changing their entire defensive strategy against him, because every time he
touched the ball he was a real threat to haul it, many times untouched, into
the end zone. They’d stack the line of scrimmage, which he made them pay for
once he broke into their secondary. They’d stick a spy on him—a free safety,
usually—but the safeties or the corners he faced couldn’t bring him down, even
working in tandem, and off he’d gallop for first downs or touchdowns. He never
celebrated once inside the end zone, but would calmly lay the ball down on the
turf and point briefly to heaven: Here’s
a little medicine for you, Mom.
The call came not an hour after the crushing loss to UCLA. Marcus had been arrested, according to the Mayor of Corvallis, whom Gideon had met a grand total of two times. The fucker had left Mom alone at home, oxygen line in her nose, noisy ventilator shell working to keep her breathing, to fight a bunch of worthless fucking hoodlums. She had no one to help her.
“I’ve sent emergency personnel,” Mayor Shelby assured him. “We’ll take care of her. We’ve got your brother in county lockup.”
He went back to the dorm, bruised and crushed from the defeat, only to be woken by another call in the still hours of the morning. It was Clarke Todd, the sheriff, one of Mom’s closest friends. “She’s in critical condition, Gideon. I’m sorry. She’s had a collapse of some sort and an ambulance rushed her to the hospital.”
Facing coach that morning was the hardest thing he ever had to do. “I’m going home,” he announced, fighting to look him in his eyes. Coach was everything Gideon’s father wasn’t: decent, caring, honest, giving, tough but not a bully. “I won’t be coming back. I’m so sorry, coach. Please tell them—tell them all—I’m sorry.”
Coach pulled him into a hug, and both cried. “One thing I know about you, Gideon, is that you are, above all things, an outstanding young man. Loyalty and decency are what you’re all about. Doing the right thing. Your mother is very lucky to have a son like you.”
He stared at his mother’s back as she slept in the dismal dark. “You’re so lucky, Mom.”
He began weeping.
... so lucky to have a son who isn’t with you the final days of your life.
... so lucky to have a son who doesn’t have the balls to watch you fall apart.
... so lucky to have a son who doesn’t keep his promises.
“So lucky,” he whispered. “So fuckin’ lucky.”
Tissues waited on the nightstand; he reached for them and pulled a bunch out, then went into the bathroom to blow his nose. Photographs of him and Marcus were under the mirror on the sink.
He picked up the one of Marcus—his graduation picture from high school. Mom had personally begged the principal to let Marcus graduate, despite his one-point-three grade point average and his many suspensions for everything from growing pot in the school’s planters to repeatedly beating up his many rivals. She had gotten out of bed, weak and frail, and sat in that office and literally begged. The principal, Mr. Pope, almost certainly said yes because he couldn’t tell such a pathetic, trembling, emaciated woman no.
He put the picture down.
He couldn’t look at his.
He sat on the toilet, afraid of making any noise that might wake her, stood, and carefully put the lid down after finishing. He didn’t flush.
He went back to the seat. Instead of sitting, as he was about to, he went to the bed. Very gently, he put a hand on her shoulder, then bent and kissed her cheek. He had to hurry, as tears threatened to fall on her. He straightened himself.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered. “I promise I’ll be back tomorrow. I promise. I love you.”
He turned and left the room, closing the door as quietly as he could.
The drive to
Ontario, Oregon, from Corvallis
was almost five hundred miles and, nonstop, eight hours. For Gideon, it was
more like ten hours, because he stopped for lunch in Bend, and sometimes the occasional nap in a
turnout. This was his fourth trip.
Snake River Correctional Institution was located just north of
Ontario. It was where Marcus was serving his
sentence. It was a medium-security facility, a damn sight better than the
maximum-security dump located in Salem,
which was infamous for its brutally inhumane conditions and the corrupt warden
and guards, along with the various gangs that with them ruled the place.
Again it was Mom who saved Marcus’ bacon. She begged the judge to show him leniency and mercy; the judge, no doubt swayed as Mr. Pope was by her emaciated condition, sentenced Marcus to eight years in
with a chance for parole forty months into his bid.
That meeting was five months away. Gideon had no desire to go anytime before that, but found himself driving in that direction three days after seeing Mom for the last time. He had promised to visit her the next day, but didn’t, or the one after that. On the third day he called in sick (he was working nights for a janitorial outfit that serviced many businesses downtown), hopped in his car, and hit the highway.
Existence was its own prison sentence, and he wanted to die. Before he left he visited his father, who owned a large mason contracting business and was one of the richest men in
“You never see me unless you want money,” his father groused, stalking into his office and slamming the door. “That’s all I am good for. You here for money?”
A large grizzly bear head was mounted on the opposite wall, its mouth open wide, fangs bared, its glass eyes fierce. Gordon McDougall was known as “Bear” for his temper and overwhelming attitude. In fact, it was how he was known around town—not as Gordon McDougall, but Bear McDougall.
“How’s your mother?” he demanded.
“She’s all right,” lied Gideon.
Was that why he was here—because he was searching for anyone, anything that could serve as an anchor during this awful time? Was he so desperate that he somehow convinced himself that his fucking father could step in and fill that role? He glanced around as though just discovering that he was here, unconscious as he was just a moment before.
“How’s that worthless brother of yours?”
Gideon shook his head. “I haven’t heard from him in a while. I’m thinking of going out there.”
Don’t tell him today.
“What the fuck for? I say let him rot. He’s in his proper place. I hope they never let him out. I hope his cellmate sticks a fat dick up his ass and a shiv in his back. He deserves it.”
Marcus had broken into his father’s palatial home multiple times, the last one stealing Krugerrands from Sharon, Bear McDougall’s second wife.
A road trip across
Oregon would ease Gideon’s
cowardice and conscience, if but a tiny bit. He could tell Mom that he didn’t
visit her because he was seeing Marcus. That would make her smile.
“Still at that janitor outfit?”
“Yep,” nodded Gideon.
His father sat. He then said what he had said almost every time Gideon saw him. “You could go pro and make millions. Instead you sit around here wasting your life on your goddamn mother. What’s her story these days? Still faking her illness so she can bleed me dry?”
Gideon, looking down at his knees and fighting not to look disgusted or to respond in any way that would provoke him further, shrugged. His father had never bothered showing up at any of his games. Not one. But Mom had, even as sick as she was. She had always shown up. She had even run the booster club a few years when he was in high school.
“You’re pissing your life away. Look at you, Gideon. Cleaning toilets for a nigger. That nigger should be washing your shorts. You’ve never finished a fucking thing in your life. Never.”
Gideon had long since learned not to protest. And even though he was in his prime, and was as large as his father, his father still terrified the crap out of him. Gordon McDougall was a violent man, and had, before divorcing Mom, regularly beaten both Marcus and him. Those scars and fear would never go away.
“Well,” said Gideon, standing, “I should get going.”
“Tell that useless brother of yours that
wants those Krugerrands back.”
But the highway leading to
where he drove initially.
You’re pissing your life away. Look at you.
He found himself outside Lauren Hall at
Lauren Hall—the admissions office. Oregon
After a time, he found a place to park and walked across the street and into the building.
Ten minutes later he emerged with admissions and loan applications in his hand. He tossed them on the passenger seat and was on the highway minutes later.
He sat across from Marcus after shaking his hand. The room looked like a cafeteria and was painted a drab blue, and smelled of pine-scented cleaner. The few windows looking outdoors were barred and had mesh over them, allowing only a little of the gray of the day in. Most of the light came from the cold white fluorescent lights overhead. A low monotone of conversation surrounded them.
“Not good. They think she’s only got a month or two left. She’s seeing shit. It’s really hard talking to her. How are you?”
Marcus chuckled without sound. “How do you think I am? There is no such thing as a good day in a place like this. Mom ... she was writing me every day. She’s stopped.”
“She’s ...” Gideon fought the cold touch of doom at the mention that Mom had stopped writing Marcus, something he didn’t know (but probably should’ve guessed) she was doing. “She’s hallucinating. It’s pretty fuckin’ freaky.”
“At least you’re there for her, bro.”
Gideon couldn’t look him in his eyes. “Yeah,” he said, staring down at the table between them. “Yeah.”
“Think she’ll make it to my parole hearing?”
It was a profane thought, but one he clung to with every last hope in his being—that she would continue to live.
“I don’t know, man,” he finally answered. “I don’t know.”
The prison allowed for a full hour of conversation, and Gideon didn’t want to deprive Marcus of any time outside his cell. He knew Marcus didn’t exactly see him as a much better alternative, but could see the gratitude in his eyes when the conversation lagged or stopped completely for uncomfortable periods.
They had grown up rivals in every way. Enemies was actually the better word. Where Gideon walked the straight and narrow, Marcus did everything he could to bend the rules, if not snap them over his knee. Gideon graduated high school with honors and was approached by over sixty Division I football programs, with most of them offering him a full-ride scholarship. A few even flew him, all expenses paid, to meet the players and coaches.
Marcus barely got out of high school.
Their father verbally and physically abused them until the divorce. Gideon was 13, Marcus 11. With Marcus, however, dear ol’ Dad was especially cruel. When Marcus wasn’t even five, Dad gave him bourbon at dinner parties. When Mom protested and tried to stop him, she would be humiliated in front of their friends and, later, beaten herself.
Mom had favored Gideon. That was Marcus’ continual bitter charge as they grew up, one that both Mom and Gideon vehemently denied.
Looking at Marcus now, looking at him while thinking of Mom in that nursing home, her mind, like her body, wilting away, and thinking of his cowardice in abandoning her in her greatest need, Gideon saw: she had indeed favored him.
What would Marcus have done were he a free man? But Gideon knew. Marcus, even though he screwed up once when he was supposed to be watching her (which actually landed him here), would do everything he could to be there every day, no matter how awful it was, no matter how high or hung over he was.
The talk eventually ventured into the territory of what he planned to do once paroled. Gideon knew it was a measure of how bereft of anything to say that Marcus began talking of it. His freedom was anything but assured, which made any hopeful talk of the future painful.
“Remember when we mowed lawns and did all that landscaping that summer?”
Gideon was a junior, Marcus a freshman. They used the old lawnmowers in the garage after fixing them up, and their own tools.
They worked hard and had plenty of clients. By the time summer break was over and school just about to start up again, he and Marcus had made nearly seven thousand dollars. They split it fifty-fifty. Gideon put his in a savings account; Marcus smoked his away before Christmas break.
“Yeah,” said Gideon, smiling. It was the longest the two of them had ever gotten along. In fact, in the whole of that summer they didn’t fight—verbally or physically—once. Marcus even stopped drinking and smoking pot, and was often the one waking him up at 5 each morning. “That was a good summer. We busted our asses and made some nice bank.”
“Let’s do it again. This time we’ll go whole hog—business cards, a logo on a truck, a website, an office and garage, the works.” Marcus shrugged. “What do you think?”
Gideon thought of the application to OSU sitting on the passenger seat of the car just outside the walls of this prison. “Sounds cool.”
“McDougall! Time’s up!”
Marcus glanced over his shoulder at the guard waiting at the door, and sighed.
They stood. Marcus reached for him, quite surprisingly, and they hugged. It was perhaps only the second time in their entire lives they had ever hugged.
Gideon thought of Mom, and he thought of Marcus sitting again in his cell.
You’re pissing your life away. Look at you.
“Give Mom a hug for me,” said Marcus as he released him.
“Yeah. Yeah, I will.”
“Take care of yourself, big bro. I’ll see you in a few months.”
He got home at midnight. It was raining buckets. He pulled his clothes off, took a shower, and crawled into bed.
At 2 the phone rang. The nursing home.
“I’m sorry,” said the nurse. “But your mother has died.”