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  • The wailing ring bothered him no longer. It had become something constant and nearly soothing. Three quick buzzes followed by one elongated one. A rhythm that was beginning to move and maintain the drive for life.
    He was only there a short while. Four minutes in the stale, stagnant waiting room, twelve minutes in the white washed office, and back to the car. The little bell by the office door always swinging just a little as he exited.
    Ethan was never uncomfortable afterward, only tired. The hour long ride home was becoming exceedingly grieving.
    Outside he met his neighbor by the car. He was leaned back against it puffing on a KOOL menthol. His bomber jacket and his round framed glasses giving him a very peculiar appearance. Ethan handed him a bottle of root beer before climbing in.
    “You good?” His driver asked putting his key in the ignition before popping the top of his
    “If I were any better I just couldn’t stand it.” Ethan responded as always.
    Their rides were usually quiet, speaking only briefly of the previous nights baseball game, or the weather. The radio was always tuned to some oldies rock station and they both would hum the chorus lines to ‘Little Red Rooster’ or ‘Tambourine Man’ as they drifted slowly off into their own haphazard thoughts.

    Jo always offered to come home early from work to drive Ethan herself, but he refused every time.
    “Don’t you get lonely?” She asked over dinner that night.
    “No, we’re getting along just fine.”
    She looked at him with inquisitive eyes. Ever since he started these treatments he’d been referring to himself as ‘we.’ She worried, not only for his health, but for his sanity.
    “Don’t worry.” He kissed her before heading in to bed early.

    The next day followed suit. At 2:15 he’d head outside. Up the hill next door he’d watch as his neighbor scrambled out the door, fighting on the phone with his wife.
    “I don’t know what you’re talking about, Ann. I never did no wrong by you.” he’d stumble down the hill and join Ethan in the car. “Listen, I’ve got shit to take care of. If you’re leaving be out by the time I get home.” He slammed the door before hanging up the phone.
    Ethan just soaked it all in. He could smell the whiskey on his breath. The first stretch of their ride was silent. Ethan reflected on his own experiences.
    “That’s no way to talk to your wife.” He mentioned after he cooled off.
    “I don’t know what you’re talking about old man.”
    “Sure you do.”
    “She think’s I don’t take care for her. She thinks I’m a lazy ass who doesn’t have any ambitions.”
    Ethan waited before responding. Letting him reflect on what he was saying. He watched his expression shift from anger to confusion.
    “Is she right?”
    No response.
    “I see the way you stumble in at all hours of the night. I know that you’re drunk right now. That’s no way to be a husband.”
    By this point they pulled into the clinic parking lot. If he weren’t going to be late for his appointment, Ethan would have continued.
    “Just think about it.”

    It was a late night at Mario’s. His tab running well beyond his limits. Ann was out with her mother, and that meant she’d be coming home with a shit load of complaints about his behavior. He couldn’t wait.
    “I’m cutting you off.” The bartender told him, noting the redness in his face.
    Stumbling out of the bar, he found his car keys in the pocket of his leather bomber jacket. Climbing in, he struggled to find the ignition. His ability to make it home in that condition was a recurring miracle.
    In his incapacitated state, he paraded into the house. Ann’s car was in the driveway, and the lights were on which meant she would be sitting at the kitchen table waiting. Her blonde hair pulled back taunt, her big glasses barely shading the fury in her brow. He stopped in the bathroom on his way to clean himself up the best he could.
    “Hey, sweetie.” He greeted her.
    As expected she was sitting there in the kitchen, but much to his surprise, there was no anger in her posture. She was hunched over, so weak in appearance she could barely hold up her neck. Her arms were strewn across the table, and in her hands were crumpled tissues. He sat down beside her.
    “Hey,” He rubbed her back assuringly.
    She lifted her head. Slow and painfully. As she turned her face toward his, he noted the swollen, tearful eyes.
    “I’m pregnant.” She spat. “You drunken son of a bitch.”

    “Maybe she’s pregnant.” Ethan suggested, returning to the car.
    “You’ve got a lot of nerve all of a sudden.”
    “You should get some help.”
    “Help with what?”
    “You’re drinking.” He was very blunt. “If I know one thing its that sucking them down won’t do nothing but make your troubles blurrier. Don’t fuck yourself up.”

    That night, Ethan didn’t go straight to bed after dinner. He stayed up, fighting the exhaustion to spend a little extra time with his family. He poured Jo a beer. He played cards with his youngest son and daughter. He chased his grandson around the living room. Before he turned in for the evening he poked his head out on the deck and looked up the hill. There were no cars in the driveway, the lights were all off, but on the porch his neighbor sat, throwing back beer after beer. Ethan said a prayer for him that night.

    “Fine, if that’s how you feel, get out!” Ethan listened as the front door slammed, the engine started, and she drove away. The day was just beginning, but he pulled his bottle of whiskey down off the top of the refrigerator and sucked it down. On his way out the door he shoved it in the inside pocket of his jacket.
    That was his last day of work.

    “Long night?” Ethan inquired.
    “You were right, old man.”
    Ethan waited for him to continue.
    “She’s gonna leave me too.”
    “What you gonna do about it?”
    “I ain’t gonna do nothing. She’s the one with the problem. I go to work everyday to support her. I could be a father. I could take care of them. She don’t want nothing of it.”
    “So you’re just gonna let her walk away?”
    “What else am I supposed to do?”

    It had been another long night at the bar. So long that Ethan never actually made it to bed. He was sprawled across the couch drooling over his sweat stained t-shirt. The phone rang and woke him early.
    “Hello?” He growled.
    “Mr. Owen? Hello, I’m from St. Joseph’s Hospital, I’m calling on behalf of your wife, Ann.”
    “Is everything alright?” In reaching for his glasses he struggled to make out the clock.
    “I’m afraid not, sir. She has suffered from a stroke and is in a comatose state. You’re daughter is here and she is very unsettled, she asked that we call you. I’m sorry for the bad news, but it’d be best if you got here as soon as possible.”

    “I think I’m going to ask for visitation rights.”
    “There you go.”
    “Candice is getting big these days and I don’t want to miss anything.”
    “You’ve got to get sober first, you know that?”

    The monitor flat lined. Holding her hand as delicately as he could he lost his wit. At twenty-six, nothing had prepared him for this. He laid his head down on the bed beside her and wept. A grown man, yet a child.
    That night he took Candice home. He had no place for her, so he tucked her into his own bed and retired to the couch. She was far too young to understand what had happened, and maybe it was for the best. Ethan was alone now. Not just because she left him, but because she was gone. And now he had to pick up the pieces.

    “I worked twenty six years at the Post Office, you know? I think get an interview.” Noting the clarity in his neighbors eyes one particular morning.
    “I’m not so good with interviews, sir.”
    “I think it could help you, with this custody battle and all.”
    “Ann’s mother has a lot of dirt on me, I don’t think I’m gonna be winning no custody battle.”
    “But I thought you were cleaning yourself up?”
    “I have been, but Ann only got to see that in the last few months, there’s no way her mother would believe it.”
    “So take the interview. They see you shaping up and maybe you stand a chance.”

    “Good afternoon Mr. Owen, what brings you here today?”
    Ethan straightened his stiff tie and shook the tall man’s hand before having a seat in his
    office. Beads of sweat were forming at his temple.
    “I’m hoping to find employment here.”
    “Do you have any references?”
    “I do, actually, you see,” he gestured down to his file in the man’s hands, “my neighbor is a retired employee here and he suggested that I come see you.”
    The man looked at Ethan with puzzled eyes, “I’m afraid I don’t recognize the name here, and you’re job history certainly doesn’t suggest any qualifications.”
    “You see, sir, I haven’t always been the best kind of guy. But since my wife died, I’ve been trying to get myself together. I’ve got a little girl to look after. I know I’m inexperienced, but I’m a quick learner, and I’m willing to climb the ladder. I just need the chance.” Ethan never meant to beg, but found himself at the edge of his seat with his hands crossed and his heart beating in his ears.
    “Welcome to the union.”

    It had been a long few months. Treatment was now getting the very best of Ethan. He was exhausted beyond measure. His once cheery face was now wrinkled and worn. He had three more trips to make before he was free. Free from the pain, and hopefully free from the suffering.
    “Are you sure you don’t want me to drive you?” Jo asked as he headed out the door.
    “No dear, we’re getting along just fine.” He kissed her goodbye.
    Jo hurried to the window and watched him climb into the car alone.

    “Tomorrow’s the big day, old man.”
    “Promotion time?”
    “That, and my hearing for Candice.”
    “I wish you the best, son.”

    “Mr. Owen, why is it that you seek custody of Candice?” The judge inquired.
    “Well, your Honor, had you asked me that same question a year ago, I would have laughed in your face, tossed back my flask of rye, and spat right on the floor.”
    “I don’t think you understand what we’re doing here, Mr. Owen.”
    “Just hear me out, sir.” Ethan continued. “I used to be the last person on the planet who should be responsible for the life of another human being. I used to be a drunk, and bum, and an idiot. And you could ask any one of Ann’s family and they will tell you the same. But they don’t know me anymore. They don’t know that I’ve sought out full time employment. They don’t know that I’ve been going to AA meetings for the past four months. They don’t know that I smoked my last cigarette twelve weeks ago. They don’t know that I’ve been caring for the old man who lives next door to me for the last year and a half.
    “I’ve turned my life around, your Honor. And I’m ready to take on my own responsibilities. My neighbor, he’s taught me all about what it means to be a father. He’s probably the greatest one I’ve ever met. Poor guy comes home from his radiation treatments every night and cooks dinner for his whole family while he should be in bed taking it easy. I’m ready to care for Candice. I know I am, because if I can be even a fraction of the man he is I’ll be doing a damn good job.”

    The wailing ring bothered him no longer. It had become something constant and nearly soothing. Three quick buzzes followed by one elongated one. A rhythm that he no longer needed to move and maintain the drive for life.
    He was only there a short while. Four minutes in the stale, stagnant waiting room, twelve minutes in the white washed office, and back to the car. The little bell by the office door always swinging just a little as he exited. Today he rung it loud and for all to hear.
    Outside there was no one waiting by the car. No one leaned up against it puffing on a KOOL menthol. No one suited up in a leather bomber jacket that reminded him of his youth. No one with bloodshot eyes scouting for the nearest liquor store. No one. Ethan popped open the bottle of root beer in his hand, took a sip, and climbed into the driver’s seat.
    As he pulled into his garage, he peered up the hill next door. There were no cars in the driveway. No cigarette butts on the lawn. Only a little white sign down by the mailbox with big dark letters that read ‘SOLD.’
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