Chris Kuell

The Burden of Gratitude

She wasn’t surprised when the only other patron in the hotel bar took the empty stool next to her.

“Mind?” He asked.

She turned and performed a quick assessment. White shirt and loosened tie meant he was traveling on business. Sandy blonde hair, slight wrinkles at the corners of playful hazel eyes, somewhere in his mid-forties. A little short, but broad shouldered, thick arms and just a hint of a middle-aged paunch. She nodded. He sat and ordered a Dewar’s over ice.

“Patrick Conrad.” He extended a hand.

She put down her wine and accepted the hand. “Emily McPherson.”

“What brings you to Indianapolis, Emily?”

His voice was relatively uncharacteristic, perhaps Pennsylvania or Michigan or one of those other accentless states. “Just passing through.” She considered telling him that she’d started off in Biddeford, Maine, the day before, made it to a town just outside of Rochester yesterday, and after nine long hours in the car, pulled into the Ramada about an hour ago. But after two days of minimal conversation, she’d grown to appreciate the unspoken, and opted for a sip of Merlot instead.

“Business or pleasure?” he asked, taking a healthy pull from his scotch. Despite the lack of a wedding ring, she noticed the untanned band around the second finger on his left hand. A hand that probably spent a lot of time outside a car window while he drove from town to town selling computers or pharmaceuticals or whatever kind of widgets filled the trunk of his company car.

“A little of both,” she said. “And, neither.” His caterpillar eyebrows raised in a ‘do tell’ fashion. Again she opted to leave her thought hanging.

Don, the bald bartender with a graying, Stalin-like mustache, wiped the clean granite bar top in front of them and placed a bowl of mixed nuts and goldfish between their drinks.

“Since we appear to be playing twenty questions, I’ll go with—and what is your final destination?”

She smiled. He gave off a genuine vibe, not sleazy or full of himself, just a guy killing time before he has to get into his car again by chatting with the only other person in the bar. “Not sure. Southern California somewhere. I hear San Diego is beautiful, but very expensive.”

“Right on both counts,” Patrick said. “I attended a conference there four years ago. I work for Amesbury, the third largest synthetic flooring manufacturer in the country. In the week I was there, it was sunny and in the low eighties every day. And the boys in accounting nearly shit their pants, pardon my French, when I turned in my expense report. It’s a beautiful place with beautiful people, fabulous restaurants and a great zoo, but it ain’t cheap.” He threw a handful of the bar mix into his mouth and signaled to Don to bring another drink for both of them. “Why California?”

She figured if she was going to have another glass of wine, she better eat something and also took a handful of nuts. “It’s as far away from Maine as I can get in my car.“

He waited as Don brought the drinks, handed him a twenty and sniffed his scotch before drinking. “You running away, or just taking a little personal vacation?”

She twirled the wine in her glass thoughtfully. Three days ago her husband had left a post-it note on the refrigerator which read: Pick up my shirts at the cleaners. Get more dog food for Max. I’ll be home around 7 tonight so wait on dinner.

No please, no thank you.

“A little of both, I suppose.”

“Things a little rocky with the hubby?” he asked.

She saw Bobby in her mind. His scowl, the passive aggressive hurt in his eyes, like a puppy that has just been smacked with a rolled up magazine. The contempt at her drinking with another man. “I’m pretty sure things are over with the hubby.”

“You’re still wearing the ring, I notice.”

“Habit,” she answered. “And a vague hope it may keep away lecherous men.”

He laughed and a playful smirk grew at the corners of his mouth. “Is that a hint?”

Now it was her turn to smile. “The jury is still out.”

“Look,” he said, biting on an ice cube from his glass. “I have a long evening ahead of me and I’d rather spend the time with a pretty lady than by myself.” He glanced at his watch, a sleek silver model that looked expensive. “It’s going on 7:30, and I’m famished. I know a great Indian restaurant about three blocks from here. Can I buy you dinner?”

She did a quick mental calculation. There was a money order for thirteen thousand dollars in her suitcase, half of the savings account she’d built with Bobby. Hopefully, it would be enough for a fresh start. There was about four hundred bucks in cash in her purse, and she had a new credit card, with the bills going to a post office box so she could charge without Bobby tracing her. Part of her would like the free meal, but she didn’t want to give the wrong impression.” I’ll pay for myself. Give me ten minutes to freshen up, and I’ll meet you in the lobby.”

In her room she brushed her teeth and hair, and dabbed on a touch of lip gloss. She looked hard at the woman in the mirror, checking the eyes for the crow’s feet women in her family were famous for. She took her earrings out, considered changing to a gold, dangly pair, then decided to stick with the plain white hoops. In the suitcase on the bed she found her medicine bag, removed several bottles of pills and began counting. Two cyclosporine, two rapamycin, one prednisone, one Lipitor and three 50 mg toporols. For the third day in a row, she left the Prozac unopened. The handful of pills didn’t mix well with the wine in her stomach, and she belched like a bullfrog in a moonlit bog. The cyclosporine gave her breath a slight sulfury odor, and caused fine blonde hairs to grow on her back and shoulders. Yes, it could be removed with wax, but it still hurt like hell. The rapamycin caused undesirable scar tissue growth, and the prednisone lowered her bone density. At thirty-six, she’d already developed osteoporosis, an old woman’s disease.

Next, she dug into her purse, pulled her cell phone out, and reluctantly turned it on. As soon as a signal was found it chirped a dozen or so times. A quick scan showed seventeen voice mails, and twenty-three texts. Most were from Bobby, although three were from her mother and two from her older brother. Bobby had undoubtedly coaxed them into helping bring her back. Since cell signals were traceable, she would email them later. But, what would she say? He hadn’t hit her or cheated on her or gambled away their money or taken up drinking. No, Bobby McPherson, who made fifty-four thousand dollars a year as a state department of labor statistician, and chaired the welcoming committee at the First Congregational Church of Biddeford, was by all accounts a stand-up guy.

Despite telling herself not to, Emily checked the latest text.

After all I’ve sacrificed for you, how could you do this to me?

Patrick was waiting for her in the lobby. He’d changed into a navy blue polo shirt and she detected a musky cologne she hadn’t noticed in the bar.

“Shall we drive, or would you prefer to stretch your legs?” he asked.

“I spent all day in the car,” she said. “I could really use the walk.”

Although Indianapolis wasn’t New York or Boston, to Emily the number of shops and offices and lights were quite a change. As they strolled, Patrick told her about how, after bouncing around a handful of jobs, he’d ended up selling flooring for Amesbury and found his niche. He was based in Pittsburgh, but covered all of Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and Western New York state. When she asked about his family, he didn’t flinch or lie, telling her he’d been married for twenty years to his college sweetheart. They had two kids, Laura, who was sixteen and ready to change the world, and Timmy, a sedentary twelve-year-old who sat on the couch and played video games for hours on end.

The Bombay Palace was about half full when they arrived. It was an immense white building which really did look palatial. Inside were fine rugs, elephant and various goddess statuettes, and pungent odors of cardamom, curry and other exotic spices. After being seated, Emily ordered another glass of red wine while Patrick switched to a beer called Taj Mahal, which came in a large, twenty-two ounce brown bottle.

“To fresh starts.” Patrick raised his glass. Emily clinked her glass to his and sipped, savoring the dry taste of the wine. She admitted to Patrick that she’d never had Indian food, as Bobby’s idea of dining out meant going to the Longhorn Steakhouse for a rib-eye with mashed potatoes. Patrick helped her order a fry bread appetizer and a lamb curry dish that was spicy and delicious. He shared his chicken korma, which was so hot it made her forehead sweat.

While the dutiful, dark-skinned waiter refilled her water and brought them both another drink, she told Patrick about her job selling housewares at Macy’s in the Portland Mall, and how she’d been taking pottery classes for the past two years.

“Ever sell anything?” he asked.

“Oh, no.” she felt suddenly shy. “I’ve made some funky candle holders, some bowls, a few mugs. Not much more. I just like the feel of the fresh clay in my hands, and the sensation as it spins on the wheel, slowly taking shape. The raw clay, it’s full of possibilities.”

He held her hand as they walked back to the Ramada, and she didn’t object. He was nice, made her laugh when he joked about how bad a cook his mother was. Her single cooking method was to boil everything for a half hour, no matter what the recipe called for. “Instead of the typical freshman fifteen,” he said, “In my first year of college I gained fifty pounds!”

They walked by a shoe store, a hair salon, a bridal boutique with headless mannequins wearing thousand dollar dresses.

“One time,” she said, feeling a little tipsy from the wine, “My friend Stacey and me went to a complete stranger’s wedding.”

“Is life in Maine so boring you have to resort to crashing weddings?”

“It was, I dunno, sort of a dare. Stacey said she’d never been to a wedding. We were seventeen and stupid, so I suggested we dress up on Saturday and visit all the local churches until we found a wedding. We hit on our second church, Saint Gregory’s. We sat on the bride’s side, then followed a couple of cute guys to the reception. They bought us drinks and we danced and had a helluva time.”

“Did anyone discover you weren’t invited?”

Emily laughed, caught up in the memory. “Nope. You know those match books they always have at weddings? Seth and Maggie, October 10, 1999? We just told people we were friends of Maggie’s, and avoided her and her family during the reception.” She looked toward the sky, but didn’t see any stars because of the city lights. “It was the best wedding I’ve ever been to.”

Emily allowed Patrick to convince her to have one more drink at the hotel bar, and then accompanied him to his room. The four, or was it five, glasses of wine had relaxed her, loosened up her usual inhibitions. When they kissed, she could taste the scotch on his breath, smell the Indian restaurant mixed with cologne on his skin. He helped her with her sweater and jeans, and she pulled the polo shirt over his broad chest, marveling at how hairy he was. In bed, she in her bra and panties, him in his boxers, he ran a finger languidly over her smooth skin, then along the rough scar that curved on her left side from an inch or so below her rib cage to just above her pubic bone.

“What’s this from?” he asked softly, kissing the coarse skin.

In her mind, she saw Bobby doing the same thing a few months after the bandages and stitches had been removed. ”How’s little Bobby doing in there?” he had said, pressing his lips to the still-tender scar.

“Now I’ll always be a part of you.” He grinned up at her. “You’ll never be able to leave me.”

“I had a kidney transplant seven years ago,” she told Patrick.

“What happened?”

“I was born with a form of lupus, although it wasn’t diagnosed until I was in my twenties. By then, I had lost thirty- pounds, had no energy, and felt like dog shit in a paper bag. Basically, my kidneys were shutting down. I had three choices—dialysis, transplant, or taking an eternal dirt nap.”

“Yikes,” he said, moving up to kiss and hold her. “Where did the new kidney come from?”

She lay flat on her back, Patrick’s strong arm supporting her head, and stared blankly at the ceiling. Where had the kidney come from? Wasn’t that the sixty-four thousand dollar question?
“My husband.”

The sex was quick and perfunctory, no shades of Gray or steamy Danielle Steele novel stuff. He was heaving like a bull on top of her, and she thought her hands looked like starfish against his broad, hairy chest. Twenty minutes later, Patrick lay on his side snoring, and she swam in the waves of emotion crashing all around her.

For the first three years of their marriage, she and Bobby had been so happy. Thursday night was movie night, and Saturdays they food shopped together, always keeping an eye out for bargains. Laughing at all the freakish chickens at the state fair, watching the sun rise on top of Cadillac Mountain. They scrimped and saved to buy the house on Cottage Street, and she’d spent hours on end planting flowers and even putting in a raised bed vegetable garden. They met the other families in the neighborhood, went to church on Sunday, and could have been on the cover of Yankee Magazine. Then, after a year of trying to get pregnant without success, she’d gone to the gynecologist for help. Dr. Ashby discovered the kidney trouble, just as the disease was affecting her other organs. She lost weight, had less than no energy, and her skin turned corpse gray.

She started taking iron supplements and painful injections to keep her red blood cell count up. She went on the transplant list, with about fifty-thousand other people, and waited. The average wait time is two-and-a-half years for a kidney. In the meantime, ninety-thousand Americans die every year from end stage renal disease.

Her brother wasn’t a match, nor were any of her cousins. Finally, Bobby asked to be tested, and he had four out of six of the critical genetic factors. He was healthy, passed the psychological testing. On a hot July morning, both of them dressed in paper johnnies, she kissed him, told him she loved him, cried, and said she’d see him in a few hours.

Six months later, the guilt trip started with a joke. Bobby was watching football with his friends, Gary and Al. He called to her. When she went into the family room he asked, “Hey babe, can you get us some beers, and maybe the bag of pretzels?”

The request caught her up short. This wasn’t the fifties, and they had always had a relationship based on equality. “Your legs work, don’t they?” she said.

“C’mon, Em. I mean, I gave you a kidney. The least you could do is grab a few beers for me.”

She thought maybe he was playing the macho pig for his guy friends, and she didn’t want to make a scene, so she got the beers and the pretzels, then went upstairs to fold laundry. Somewhere in her head she heard the voice of her long dead grandmother Ella, saying, “Many a true word is said in jest.”
If he wanted another beer, he could get it himself.

A month later, a similar incident occurred over his turn to do the dishes. Then he asked if she would run an errand for him. Then it was mowing the yard. Sometimes his guilt trips were blatant, sometimes subtly hidden, but the basic message was always the same. I saved your life, and you owe me.

Patrick rolled over and elbowed her right breast. He had big arms, and it hurt. A lot. She got out of bed, his snoring went on uninterrupted. Gathering her things, she slipped into the bathroom and dressed. She found the hotel stationary and a pen on the desk and tried to think of something clever to write. Nothing came to mind, so she scrawled, Happy Trails, Emily. This struck her as stupid, so she tore off the sheet, balled it up and tossed it in the trash.

Back in her own room, Emily took a twenty minute shower, the water so hot it left her skin red and tender. What had she done? Getting drunk and sleeping with a man she didn’t know, just two days after leaving her husband. What would Grandmother Ella have to say about that? She scrubbed her skin until it was raw, and then she scrubbed some more.

The summer after the transplant, she and Bobby had taken a canoe trip down the Saco River. They put their packs, cooler, camp stove and sleeping bags into a rented canoe, and left civilization behind for three days. Bobby had scheduled a pick-up forty-two miles downstream. She sat in front, he in the back, and after a bit of struggling they developed a nice rhythm. They talked, watched the birds, sang songs from when they were kids, did a little fishing, and even saw a moose, big as a house, sipping from the edge of the river. Late that first afternoon, the sun was hot and she took off her shirt, paddling in her bikini top. Bobby warned her to use sun screen, but the afternoon didn’t seem that bright to her, and she wanted to catch a few rays. She thought she’d be fine. Big mistake. After setting up camp that first night, she could have fried an egg on her shoulders. She couldn’t get comfortable on the hard ground, and

Bobby made her lay his sleeping bag on top of hers to give more padding. He just laid on the vinyl tent flooring, holding her hand. They had no aloe, of course, so Bobby kept rinsing out a wash cloth in the cold river water, using it to sooth her burned skin. In the morning, he took care of cooking breakfast, reloaded everything into the canoe, and did most of the paddling, since with her blistered skin, her paddling was next to useless. He was kind and gentle and giving, never getting angry that he had to do all the work. He hadn’t complained that they couldn’t have sex, which she knew he wanted. Bobby just comforted her and made the best of the situation.

Emily stepped from the shower, wrapped her hair in a towel and dried off with another. That’s what a marriage was, she thought. Two people who love and help and support each other. Two people who operate better as a team than they would individually.

Emily made a cup of coffee, running it through the machine twice to make it extra strong. She got dressed, dried her hair, and repacked her things. As she drank the strong coffee, she pulled out her cell phone. Finding Bobby’s name, she pressed enter, then text, and wrote:

Gratitude is the memory of the heart. Gratitude is happiness doubled by wonder.

She hit send, wiped the tear from her cheek, and left the hotel. As she exited the parking lot and approached the highway, she saw the sign for I-70 West to the right, and I-70 East to the left. A home and a thousand miles of pavement one way; a clean slate and boundless uncertainty two thousand miles the other direction. After a momentary hesitation, she turned left and drove into the first glimmer of the dawning sun.

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About the Author

Chris Kuell has had a number of short stories and essays published over the years. He is the editor of Breath and Shadow, a journal of disability culture and ideas.