The movie is Old Yeller and it plays out on the television in the corner of the hospital room. My son, then eleven, watches from the bed through eyes compressed nearly shut by a sinus infection. An IV beeps. Antibiotic seeps into his arm as it has for nearly four days without appreciable effect.
The father and the neighbor are arguing on the television, one of those maddening exchanges in which each person stops just short of the crucial bit of information which would make them each understand each other. I want it to stop. I say this out loud.
“Mom,” my kid says without lifting his head from the propped up pillows. He says it with the bored impatience of the newly adolescent. “There has to be conflict. No conflict. No story.”
I turn to him, stunned. “Where did you learn that?”
His eye flicked from the screen to me. Where did he learn the withering glance?
“School,” he says. “Where else?”
“What else are you learning?”
“Can we just watch the movie?”
So far, the story of Thanksgiving 1986 is playing out with lots of conflict. The whole hospital episode started the Friday before Thanksgiving and his desire to attend a party that he knew he would miss if I knew he was sick. So, he hid this piece of crucial information until he woke up that morning with half his face the size and color of a Beefsteak tomato. I want to keep my job so I give him some Tylenol, make him stay home, and call him every hour from work until lunchtime when I arrive to find nothing changed. Both of us want to spend Thanksgiving at my mother’s table, ten hours away from our one-bedroom apartment in New Jersey where I sleep on a futon in the living room, he sleeps in a bed we found somewhere cheap, and we dine at a borrowed vinyl and aluminum table seated on two borrowed chairs.
By the time we switch on Old Yeller in the hospital room five days later, we know that the crowd around Mom’s table will not include us. Now all I want is for the antibiotic to start working. The infection, the doctor has said, is stubborn and is “dangerously close to his brain.” The doctor is with his family where I imagine he is watching football in a den off the kitchen which is infused with the aroma of various side dishes being prepared for the next day’s feast. He is not watching a movie that will end with the death of an innocent, sick dog.
By the time my son’s father drives from New Hampshire to spell me, my son wants me to go. He wants to leave too, but failing that, wants to watch television with a guy who won’t talk during the next movie he finds. I am tired of conflict, so around 11:30 p.m., I kiss him good bye and try not to tell his father everything he already knows about what to do if our son takes a turn.
The November night slaps me out of the hospital haze I’ve been in for days. My legs freeze under my jeans. The engine is so cold I have to run it for ten minutes before I can drive the eight minutes to our apartment. The route takes me down a broad leafy boulevard lined with houses of people who can afford four bedrooms, two baths, a couple of cars and sloping lawns. The houses of people who can assume certain comforts.
Ahead, two headlights flare. These lights are attached to a tow truck that is pulling away from the curb. A car is hitched to the tow bar. A man appears in the short driveway leading to the curb. He is naked except for the towel he clutches around his waist. The towel is white as is the skin on his back, his belly, and his feet. He runs after the tow truck, one arm clutching his towel, the other raised in a fist. His mouth opens in a shout I can’t hear through my closed windows. In my rearview mirror, I watch the soles of his feet flash in the streetlight as he pursues the truck. He runs a good fifty feet before he stops, drops his fist, and stands as the red taillights of the tow truck disappear around the corner.
I want to stop and go back to him but what would I say? Happy Thanksgiving? It’s only a car? Maybe you should get back inside your nice house before whatever is under that towel freezes off? Then, I think, this is his story. Not mine.
All these years later it still looks like a good one: a great hook, lots of action, pregnant with unanswered questions. Loaded with conflict.
I plan to do something with it someday.