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Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb?

 

Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb?

by

Barry Rachin

 

 

Shakespir EDITION

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

Published by:

Barry Rachin on Shakespir

 

 

Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb?

Copyright © 2016 by Barry Rachin

 

 

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each person. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

 

 

This short story represents a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

 

  • * * * *

 

 

Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb?

 

 

 

“Adrian Flanagan’s working three to eleven over at the Brentwood Nursing Home.” Like a poker player dealt a lousy hand and waits for his opponent to fold or raise the ante, Jason Flanagan fidgeted with his hands. “Thought I might drop by later this week to see how she’s doing.”

His wife, who was stuffing the washing machine with a load of soiled towels grimaced but never bothered to raise her head. The wiry, elderly man, who stood a tad less than six feet, watched her measure a cupful of Borax liquid detergent.

Kate, a petite Italian woman with a pointy nose and auburn hair streaked with gray, sprinkled softener into the machine before closing the lid. Her eyes flared and lower jaw flattened like a battering ram. “Not a good idea.”

Jason could sense his wife raising the emotional drawbridge, walling herself up behind a thick slab of brittle-minded certitudes “Why’s that?”

“The nursing home is a private business, and you’ve no legitimate reason being there.”

Jason cringed. After thirty-three years of marriage, his wife was still doing ‘the voice’. The voice was a stilted, phony as a three-dollar bill inflection that she inadvertently slipped into when out of her natural element. A set of gears in the washer clicked and the agitator began swirling the dirty clothes in the sudsy water. Only now did the woman step back, hands on hips, and look her husband full in the face. “Some things are better left in the past.”

“Maybe I’ll go see my brother.” He scratched his stubbly chin reflectively. “What’s it been… fifteen years now? I’m sure he’s heard from Adrian by now.”

Kate Flanagan cringed. “You’ll be wasting your breath talking to that moron?”

Jason knew better than to argue the point. His older brother, Jack, was worse than a moron. He was a belligerent slug who never regretted a personal indiscretion no matter how much damage caused. A pot-bellied Irishman, Jack Flanagan was a loudmouth braggart who made it big in the durable medical supply business. Adrian’s mother was a non-stop talkaholic, who would rather slash her wrists than spend two hours alone in the house with her own private thoughts.

In later years, Jason developed the bizarre notion that his niece, Adrian, was switched at birth. Her parents—that is, the bogus couple who brought her home from the maternity ward—couldn’t possibly be biologically related to this soft-spoken, angelic soul. It was luck of the draw, and Adrian Flanagan got dealt a pair of duds, imbecilic jokers from the bottom of the deck.

 

Fifteen years earlier, Jack Flanagan’s mug was smeared all over the Providence Journal, when the IRS indicted him for tax evasion. A private accounting firm sent to review his corporate records at the medical supply company discovered that the flamboyant businessman, who favored Cuban cigars, Lincoln Continentals and off-colored jokes, was ‘cooking the books’. A slew of hospital beds and motorized wheelchairs that never left the company showroom had been billed to Medicare along with a hundred eighty-five bogus claims for bottled oxygen. Worse yet, an elderly woman with rheumatoid arthritis receiving inhalation therapy had been deceased a half dozen years.

Rumors circulated that Jack Flanagan was heading to Connecticut for a little rest and relaxation courtesy of the federal government. Jack’s new mailing address was a minimum security facility with an outstanding law library, soft ball field and state-of-the-art exercise gym. Nolo contendere. In the end, he copped a plea, paid a hefty fine and received a two-year suspended sentence. Case closed!

Throughout the ordeal, the man never showed a speck of remorse.

The week before his final court date, Adrian’s old man was yakking it up like a remorseless jackass at a Fourth of July barbecue. Decked out in Bermuda shorts and a garish print shirt, Jack Flanagan poked fun at the district attorney. Everyone cheated on their income tax, right? The unfortunate glitch with the hospital beds, bottled oxygen and wheel chairs was just sloppy bookkeeping. Sloppy bookkeeping to the tune of over two hundred thousand dollars!

At the cookout, not a single neighbor snubbed the man or expressed moral indignation. Even Jason’s parents, who damned the thieving bastard to hell in the privacy of their own home, laughed at their son’s flippant jokes and snide remarks. Jack Flanagan didn’t give a rat’s ass about a fall from grace.

His only regret was getting caught.

 

Some things are better left in the past. The Thanksgiving following the indictment Jason was visiting his brother’s family. Adrian was hunkered down in the den, playing with a one-legged Barbie doll, which she was dressing in a glitzy evening gown. Jason remembered her as a round-faced imp with coal black hair cropped short —a persnickety tomboy with sparkling eyes, a burnished coppery complexion and stocky frame. Adrian snuggled up alongside him on the couch with an impishly brazen smirk. “Uncle Jason, do you think the rain will hurt the rhubarb?”

“Well, I’ll tell you, Adrian,” he hunched over and whispered with a conspiratorial flair, “They’re forecasting a ninety-nine percent chance of torrential downpour, but if it’s in cans, everything should be okay.”

Adrian giggled infectiously but just as abruptly her features darkened noticeably and the girl lowered her voice several decibels. “Daddy told my mom that she’s got shit for brains.”

In the kitchen, the thermometer popped. Jason’s sister-in-law was easing the turkey from the oven. “Cripes!” He didn’t know what else to say.

“She called daddy a two-timing louse… a human turd.” Adrian reached out furtively and grabbed her uncle’s wrist. “My parents hate each other so much they’re getting divorced. It’s supposed to be a secret so don’t tell no one.”

For a second time in as many minutes, Jason was rendered speachless. He was carrying on a conversation with a nine year old about things that no child should comprehend. “I want to come live with you and Aunt Kate.”

Jason watched as an array of holiday concoctions – string beans with almond slivers, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and butternut squash laced with honey – was laid out on the dining room table. “That’s not possible,” he countered. “And anyway, I’m sure your parents will work things out.”

“No, they won’t,” Adrian insisted glumly. “They’re too selfish.”

Jason stared at the crippled Barbie doll. One of her oblong breasts was jutting out from the tattered gown. “Time to eat!” The call to table rescued him from the need for any further half-truths and cowardly evasions regarding Jack Flanagan’s marital intentions.

 

  • * * * *

 

A few months later, Adrian vanished from the home, dragged off to live with the garrulous mother’s extended family. Jack remarried the following year and his new wife, who was really just a younger, repackaged, jazzed up version of his old wife, got down to business.

Bang. Bang. Bang.

They had three children, all daughters, in rapid succession. No one ever talked about Jack’s first child anymore. Ten years passed. One day Jason’s daughter, Rachel, took him aside. “Saw cousin Adrian last night.”

“Where?”

“Outside a musical in downtown Boston.” In her early twenties, Rachel was a prettier version of the mother with an equally blunt temperament but less pointy nose. “She was in the Theater District just off Tremont Street near Park Square, working the crowd.”

Jason’s face clouded over. “I don’t follow you.”

“Adrian was gussied up like a hooker. A car pulled up and the driver rolled down the passenger side window. They negotiated a price. Adrian jumped in and they drove off.”

Adrian Flanagan as streetwalker decked out in a flimsy halter top, neon hot pants and stiletto heels – this latest bit of titillating garbage fit neatly with the outlandish potpourri of hearsay, idle gossip and innuendo that filtered back to him over the years. Jason felt nauseous, light headed. “Did you say anything to mom?” His daughter shook her head.

“Sure it was Adrian?”

Rachel nodded once. Jason’s favorite niece still wore her dark hair in a close-cropped, pixie style. The same squat, compact torso. “She’s all grown up now,” Rachel reported with a sober expression. “Got hips and breasts.”

 

  • * * * *

 

Later that night after supper, Jason removed the food processor from the cabinet over the sink and arranged a collection of spices and cooking utensils on the kitchen table. What are you making?” His wife asked.

“Hummus.” He ladled a healthy dollop of tahini from a metal tin into the bowl, then sliced a lemon in half and squeezed the juice into the mix. “You still visiting your brother?” Kate’s voice had mellowed since their conversation in the laundry room.

“Tomorrow morning,” Jason confirmed. Into the creamy paste he added salt and several tablespoons of olive oil. Grabbing a knife, he pried a garlic clove apart and began peeling the outer skins away from the fleshy interior. “I don’t expect much… just want to find out if he’s heard from his daughter.”

“I was a bit harsh earlier today,” Kate pulled up a chair at the table and cracked an apologetic smile, “but any mention of Jack sends me off the deep end.”

He reached for a jar of turmeric and sprinkled a half-teaspoon of the orangey powder into the food processor. “What are you reading?” he said, indicating a paperback at his wife’s elbow.

“G.K. Chesterton… Orthodoxy.” She took the lemon rinds and deposited them in the garbage. “He’s a Christian writer… very unusual.”

“In what way?”

“Chesterton said that children possess endless vitality. They want thing repeated and unchanged.”

“Yes, that’s true enough,” Jason confirmed.

“Here let me read a passage.” She thumbed through to a section near the middle of the book. “It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we.” She abruptly laid the book aside.

“No, keep reading,” He insisted, but his wife began tidying the soiled counter and showed no inclination to return to the book.

Jason shook a dash of cumin into the mix. From the refrigerator he located a package of red peppers in vegetable bin and brought them to the table, where he sliced them methodically lengthwise into thick slivers. He was considering his niece and the rhubarb. How many times had she sprung that insanely corny joke on him? A thousand, ten thousand?

It never got tiresome. Every time he came to visit, Adrian set the trap. It was pure magic, a child’s sacred ritual. Do it again! Do it again! Do it again!

Jason placed the peppers on a baking sheet, skin-side up and slid them under the broiler for ten minutes until the skin charred. Placing the slices in a resealable plastic bag, he set it aside until the vegetable steamed sufficiently to remove the peel in one piece. Dumping the bright flesh into the food processor, he reduced the pepper to a fluffy froth.

“Here, taste.” Jason tore a slice of pita bread into a wedge and scooped a generous helping of the coffee colored dip.

“Yes, that’s delicious. Real tasty!” Slipping her arms around his waist, she pulled him close. “Fourth of July’s right around the corner. If you hunt down your long-lost niece, invite her over for the holiday. We’ll cook up traditional fare… hot dogs, cheeseburgers, potato salad.”

“And red pepper hummus,” Jason quipped.

 

  • * * * *

 

“I should have done something?”

They were lying in bed with the lights out, Jason comfortably nestled up against his wife’s rump, an arm slung around her waist. Kate only half-heard the unsolicited remark. “What did you say?”

“Back then… before Adrian fell off the edge of the earth, I should have done something.”

“Your brother’s toxic,” she replied acidly. “Everything he touches turns to crap.”

“True enough but I should have done something.”

“Like what?”

“I dunno. She was a dark-eyed innocent. What’s happened over the years… it felt like a Biblical curse.”

“You’re beating yourself up over nothing.” The room fell silent. Finally his wife rolled over and, wrapping her arms around his back, pulled him close. “The proper thing to do,” she said soberly, “would have been to remove Adrian from the maternity ward the day of her delivery and place the newborn with a decent family.”

 

  • * * * *

 

Saturday morning, Jason was up early and on the road. Half an hour later he pulled into the parking lot of a shabby, split rib concrete building with a sign that read Flanagan’s Medical Supplies. Killing the engine, he went inside. A portly middle-aged man with sagging jowls and a bald head looked up from behind the counter. “My kid brother, Jason… what brings you here?”

“Nothing special.” Jason glanced around the cluttered space. A collection of hydraulic Hoyer lifts were neatly stacked along the far wall. That was new. The oxygen canisters – portable and fixed had been repositioned further down the room. Respiratory care was a major part of Jack’s business. “How are the girls?”

“Good, good…”

“And Jasmine?”

Jack waved an arm, a peremptory gesture of disgust. “Royal pain in the ass… that’s what she is. The second wife ain’t no goddamn better than the first.”

“Your daughter’s back in town.”

“So I heard,” he replied.

“You haven’t seen Adrian?”

“I’m the father,” Jack shot back abrasively. “It’s her responsibility to chase me down.”

Jack Flanagan rubbed his flabby face with a mottled hand. “The feds hit me with a stinking RAT-STATS.” When there was no immediate reply, he added, “You familiar with the term?”

“Yeah, I know what it means.” When the authorities did a Medicare audit and found discrepancies, they used an algorithm, a mathematical equation, to predict the likelihood of the event recurring over a broad span of time, usually a year. If Jack Flanagan inflated a bill by several hundred dollars and averaged seventy similar claims a year, he would have hypothetically defrauded the tax payers out of fourteen thousand dollars!

“How much this time?”

“Three hundred thousand.”

“Tough luck.”

Jack Flanagan smirked. “I’ll survive.”

“Why can’t you keep your nose clean?”

“I didn’t do nothin’ wrong,” he blustered, running all the words together. “It was a minor indiscretion… a bookkeeping error.”

An elderly woman with a pronounced limp hobbled into the store. Balancing on a three-pronged cane, she picked her way haltingly to the aisle with the motorized wheelchairs.

Between the digitalized parenteral feeding equipment, inhalation therapy supplies, hospital beds, wheelchairs and portable oxygen, there must have been a quarter of a million dollars in inventory littering the showroom floor. And that didn’t even take into account what his brother had squirreled away in the rear warehouse. With Jack, being honest earned you a comfortable living, but it was never enough. The only crime was being stupid enough to get caught.

 

When he reached home, Jason found his wife puttering in the rock garden. “How did your meeting with Jack go?”

Reaching down, Jason grabbed a clump of velvety blue lavender and let the delicate blossoms slip through his hand. Raising the fingers to his nose, he inhaled the bittersweet, cloying scent. “About as well as might be expected.”

His wife gestured with a flick of her head. “Did you notice the visitors?” The ripe lavender buds were loaded with golden honeybees foraging for nectar. As they descended, helicopter fashion, onto a pale blossom, the delicate pastel stem dipped precariously.

Reaching down, she fondled an emerald green dahlia. The blood red flowers wouldn’t emerge for another month or more toward the tail end of the season when all the other plants, except for a handful of hardy plants like sedum asters and toad lilies, had played themselves out. Kate slowly rose from a crouched position next to the dahlias. “Are you going to see Adrian?”

“Later tonight.”

“I could come along… for moral support.”

“No, it’s not necessary.”

 

  • * * * *

 

After the evening meal, Jason drove to the Brentwood Nursing Home and sat in the car with the engine idling for a good twenty minutes before mustering the nerve to enter the building. “Adrian Flanagan?”

“Over in the west wing.” The receptionist gestured in the direction of a passageway. “Check in with the nurse’s station at the far end of the hall.”

The Brentwood Nursing Home had a distinct odor—an odd mix of body wastes, Phisohex and medicinal ointments. Several bedridden women in adjoining rooms were moaning in a repetitive, sing-song fashion. As Jason passed the elevator, an emaciated gentleman dressed in a white johnny rose from his wheelchair setting off a shrill beep. A nurses aide came running and eased the fellow back down. As soon as his withered rump made contact with the padded leather seat, the hidden monitor fell silent.

At the nurse’s station a colored woman was writing in a patient’s chart while a male nurse sorted pills in thimble-sized paper cups on a medicine tray. A stocky, attractive woman with dark hair and a pink smock exited a room carrying a carton of juice. The woman hurried past toward the nursing station. “Adrian?”

The woman abruptly stopped and came back to where Jason was standing. Staring at him for the longest time, her features dissolved in a wispy smile. “Uncle Jason!” She leaned forward and, as though it was the most ordinary thing in the world, brushed her lips across his cheek.

At the nurse’s station a telephone rang. The fellow with the pill tray was locking the medicine cabinet with a brass key. For a split second, it was like they were back on the sofa at his brother’s house. “I’m off duty in ten minutes,” she instructed in hushed tones. “Wait for me outside in the parking lot.”

Like an apparition, Adrian floated off down the corridor disappearing into an adjacent room. Jason went outside and sat in his car. He felt mildly disoriented, as though time had begun flowing in the wrong direction, bleeding back into the past and forward into an as yet, unfathomable future – Einstein’s theory of relativity turned upside down. A dozen years flushed down the toilet as though nothing changed in the interim.

A little after seven o’clock, a steady stream of employees began dribbling out of the building. “Want to grab a coffee?” Jason asked.

Adrian shook her head. “Got to get home to my little girl. But I only live a few miles down the road. You can follow in your car.”

Jason went back to where he parked. Adrian was a mother. A rumor to that effect circulated for years. At nineteen, she delivered a baby out of wedlock but signed away maternal rights at birth. A month later she was pregnant with a second child. Sadly, like everything else, the ephemeral truth lay buried beneath a bruising avalanche of tall tales, hearsay, melodrama and patently bad fiction.

 

Adrian lived on the second floor of a modest apartment complex in the Maryville section of town. When they opened the door, a small dog barking hysterically rushed to greet them. “My baby,” Adrian said by way of explanation. In the kitchen Adrian removed a plastic container from the refrigerator. Scooping a serving into a bowl, she warmed it in the microwave. Before offering the food to the dog, she held the container under Jason’s nose. “Bowtie macaroni, sweet potato, peas, carrots, corn, sliced apples, chicken livers and ground turkey.”

The dog, a dirty gray shiatsu, devoured a chunk of turkey then went to work on the macaroni. Wolfing down the entire bowl in less than thirty seconds, it licked its chops, and then began rushing about the kitchen with its corkscrew tail arched over the hind quarters.

“You cook your own dog food from scratch?”

Adrian nodded. “How’s my dad doing?” she asked.

“Okay. We sometimes get together at the holidays,” Jason replied stiffly. “He had three more daughters with his second wife.”

“So I heard,” Adrian’s lips turned up ever so slightly in a dry smile. “Are they nice?”

Jason hesitated. “The first two are obnoxious, but the youngest, Dawn, is sort of sweet. Reminds me of you.”

Adrian scooped the dog up in her arms and nuzzled its face with her chin. “My father got himself into a legal mess a while back. Whatever came of that?”

“He beat the rap… walked away with a lousy fine and slap on the wrist.”

“Sounds about right.” The wistful smile lingered, but now her eyes turned flinty hard. “And what have you heard about me over the years?”

The question caught Jason off guard. “A lot of hooey… lies and innuendo.”

“Lies and innuendo…” She lobbed the words back at him like a tennis player parrying a well-placed shot. “And how do you know it isn’t true?” “Other people surely heard I’m back in town,” Adrian continued after an uncomfortable silence, “but you’re the only one with the decency to look me up.” Adrian refilled the dog’s water bowl and watched as Mitzi gulped her fill. She put the kettle on the stove and, when the water sent up a wheezy hiss, poured tea and placed a plate of sugar cookies on the table.

“ This young lady,” Jason reached for a physically challenged doll propped inelegantly on top of the sugar tin, “is she -”

“The only thing of value,” Adrian interrupted with a sardonic smile, “I salvaged when my parents split up.” “Did you know that Ruth Handler, a middle-aged businesswoman from Montana, invented the Barbie doll?”

When there was no response, she continued, “During a European trip Handler came across a German doll named Bild Lilli. The chesty novelty item wasn’t exactly what Handler had in mind for a new product, but she purchased three of them anyway.”

“Bild Lilli?”

As Adrian explained it, the doll was based on a popular comic strip character. Lilli was a working girl who knew what she wanted and wasn’t above using men to get it. At first, the executives at Mattel, where Handler worked, didn’t like the idea so she put up her own money to bring the doll to market. The Barbie doll made its debut at the American International Toy Fair in New York and sold three hundred fifty thousand the first year.

“Is there any particular reason you’re telling me this?” Jason sipped at his lukewarm tea.

“On a merchandiser’s whim, the woman could reinvent herself… take on an endless variety of extravagant personas from astronaut to medical doctor. She held a pilot’s license, and operated commercial airliners in addition to serving as a flight attendant. In the late nineties, she even drove formula one race cars on the nascar circuit!” Adrian became more animated as she spoke. “Later, Barbie and her longtime boyfriend, Ken, decided to split up and she settled in with Blaine, an Australian surfer dude.”

“All of which proved what?”

“Despite endless permutations, Barbie was essentially an airhead – a vapid, egomaniacal, anorexic, over-sexed numbskull. But none of that mattered in the grand scheme of things, because Barbara Millicent Roberts – AKA Barbie – was every adolescent girl’s role model. In the miraculous landscape of make believe, every woman can edit the script of her own destiny.”

Jason rose and went to where she was sitting. Wrapping his arms around his favorite niece’s shoulders, he pulled her close. “We’re having a barbecue on the fourth of July. Just me and your aunt… will you join us?”

“Yes, I’d like that very much.”

“Uncle Jason,” she murmured as she accompanied him to the entryway. “Do you think the rain…”


Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb?

  • ISBN: 9781311783356
  • Author: Barry Rachin
  • Published: 2016-07-06 21:23:24
  • Words: 4158
Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb? Will the Rain Hurt the Rhubarb?