"One hundred and one. Daddy?"
"It's one hundred and one."
He could see her shaking the thermometer, turning to the little wooden stand-up tray she'd put next to his bed. He'd bought that tray himself, from someone's yard sale, when she and Jenny'd been sick as little girls. Another place to set down the endless bottles, half-gone boxes of tissues, and little bags of candy he'd get them when they were laid up sick in bed. Seemed like they'd always got sick at the same time, about, Junior and Jenny, when they were little girls.
"You want me to bring you any more ginger ale?"
"No, s'all right." Just have to get up for the bathroom one, two more times.
"Kurt just went out for the mail, he says the new Newsweek's come in. You want me to bring you that?"
"You know I ain't much for reading, honey."
"Well, Daddy, you won't know that unless you put on those damn glasses you won't wear and try it for a change." They'd ganged up on him, Junior and Jenny, told him he'd been farsighted all his life and if he didn't get glasses soon he wouldn't be able to see his hand in front of his face. The eye doctor had looked like a boy to him, a short kid with a face so smooth Ennis wondered if he even had to shave it.
"You got any more of them pills?"
"It says on the bottle you can't take any for another two hours."
And that was that, he knew, she wasn't going to let him have any more until the exact second the clock said she could. He'd never bothered to read the labels of those bottles in his life, except once years ago when Alma had had the flu and asked him to find her something in the medicine cabinet. He'd taken them when he felt like he needed them, and here he was, seventy-one years old and never done any harm by taking too many pills. Not that he was like those people you heard about on the news these days, taking pills for every little thing they thought was wrong with them. Never touched the things unless he felt like sick roadkill run over twice.
"I sent Alma out to get you some more cough drops, she ought to be back in a couple of minutes." Kurt had done like Ennis himself had done years ago, named his first daughter after his wife. Third. Seventeen years old now, not born until her mother was into her thirties. They'd waited years and years to have kids, Junior and Kurt, hadn't had any until Kurt had saved up enough money to start college, gone, and paid back all his student loans. Student loans. Should have been student loans years ago, would have let Ennis get the truck fixed and gone to his sophomore year.
They'd talked about school once, Jack and Ennis, sitting near the campfire, Jack leaning against an old dead tree and Ennis leaning against Jack. Jack had gotten into junior year of high school, had been thinking he was going to graduate until he got a D for the first half of the year in algebra and his daddy'd said, Well, boy, if this is the best you can do, no use keeping you in that school, now, is there? Jack's mother had tried to convince him otherwise, but the old man's word was law and Jack withdrew the day after his report card came home. His mother had wanted her only son to get through high school, to stand up on the bleachers in his best suit and get a piece of paper she could frame and put on the wall.
"How come you was their only kid?"
"Hell if I know. You think I asked? Maybe it was one of my mama's religion things."
"Naw, that can't be right," Ennis said. "Something in the Bible 'bout being fruitful and multiplyin'."
"Shit. Fucked up another thing in that book. Lureen and I ain't done it in three years, not since she found out she was pregnant with Bobby. She wasn't real interested while he was on the way, so I didn't try until he was about four months old. Said she was tired. Guess she been tired for three years, 'cause right now there's as much sex in our house as there is in a nunnery."
They'd looked out at the fire, crackling in the dark, the flames the only light they could see. There was no moon and the clouds had covered the stars, ready to rain any minute. Ennis thought he heard the slow roll of thunder in the distance.
Jack extricated himself from between Ennis and the tree, crouched beside Ennis and turned Ennis's wrist to see his watch. "Nearly midnight already. You wanna go to bed? Get up early in the morning, maybe get some use out of those fishing poles for once."
"Not yet," Ennis said. "I ain't tired – " and he pushed Jack onto the ground, climbed on top of him, kissed him hard on the mouth while his hands reached for the buttons of his shirt, listened with a smile on his face as Jack moaned and slid his hand between Ennis's legs.
Junior and Kurt had four kids: Ken, Third, Lizzie, and Luke, four tall, skinny kids all with red hair like their daddy, not a single one with Junior's hair, but not a single one with Kurt's eyes. The first three had eyes like their mama, but Luke, his eyes were so much like Alma's that it was almost as though they'd been plucked out of her head and put in his. Sometimes over dinner Ennis would ask Luke to pass him the butter or something else, and as he looked over to take it he'd see those Alma Beers eyes and hear her voice in his head, Ennis, I've got to get to the store, I need you to wash the dishes in the sink before you head out for work. He saw Alma at every holiday dinner and the odd time she dropped by the house, though usually Junior and Kurt went out to her place to visit. She was old now, bent over at a slight angle and with hair that she dyed but always looked gray at the roots; her voice was the same as always.
The door to Ennis's bedroom opened a crack, and he looked over to see a hand sticking in through the door and to hear Kurt's voice saying, "This was in the mail for your daddy, got stuck between the pages of Lizzie's magazine."
"Daddy? It's a letter from Mrs. Twist in Lightning Flat."
Ennis turned over, squinted at the light lavender envelope, part of the same cheap stationary that she'd been using for decades. "Could ya do me a favor and read it to me, honey?"
"Why don't you get those glasses of yours from the dresser top and read it yourself?"
"Floor spins when I stand up."
"All right then, fine." Junior sighed and sat down on the wooden chair and worked back a corner of the envelope flap, ripped a strip off the top and took out the paper inside. "This handwriting of hers looks like a bunch of dead spiders. 'Dear Ennis, I am doing fine for a lady of my age who the Lord could take at any time. Things have not – ' Junior paused and brought the letter closer to her face, turned her head a bit ' – changed very much since last you wrote. I spend most of the days knitting if my hands aren't bothering me and watching the television if they are. One thing that has changed is that Bobby and Melissa – ' who're Bobby and Melissa?"
"Bobby's Jack's boy," Ennis said. "Melissa…Melissa's his wife, I think, if I 'member right."
"'Bobby and Melissa have had a little boy, so now I am a great-grandmother. They have named him Robert Twist Junior, juniors running in our family with the men as they do in yours with the girls. Jack was a junior as well, though he never wrote junior in his name.'"
It had taken Ennis seven years after meeting Jack to notice that, three years after he'd heard Jack talk about his daddy much at all. The two of them had been tying down the tent when Jack had laid his knife down on the ground for a moment and Ennis had seen the name John Charles Twist scratched into the metal of the handle. "That your daddy's knife?"
"What? No, that's mine. Rusty old piece of shit, in't it? Got it for my fifth birthday."
"John Charles Twist, that's you?"
"Yeah, that's me, friend. John Charles Twist Junior."
"Junior, huh?" He'd tied the last knot, flopped down on the ground next to where Jack sat. "Didn't know I had me a Junior at home and a Junior out here." Nudged Jack in the ribs. "You gonna scratch John Charles Twist on your harmonica too?"
"Shut up, Ennis." Jack said, but he was grinning in spite of himself, that grin that stirred something up in Ennis whenever he saw it, no matter what else was around them.
"'Robert Junior is a very sweet little boy, and Bobby and Melissa are wonderful parents, with the one exception that they have decided not to have him baptized in the Pentecostal Church.'"
Ennis felt a smile twitching on his lips, then coughed, staring up at the hazy, tilting ceiling.
"'I hope to hear back from you soon, as your letters are always a joy to me. Sincerely, Mrs. Ruth Twist.' Where do you want me to put this letter?"
"Aw, just set it down on this tray here. I think I'm gonna take a nap for a while." That ceiling didn't tilt on most days.
"You want me to wake you up when Alma comes back with your cough drops?"
"Not unless I cough in my sleep. Just let me sleep right through to when I wake up."