Volume 2 Number 1 • Spring 2010

Dennis Vannatta

The Dream Lover

Maybe no one else would describe a Burger King as “cozy,” but that's the way it felt to Cunningham, bright and warm while outside it was a dark cold winter night with a wind that cut to the bone, and across the avenue the hospital squatting against the black sky like some brooding giant. But that was only the way the hospital looked from here on a night like this. In fact, just thinking about the hospital made Cunningham feel good. Everyone to a man and woman treated him well there. The cafeteria made terrific desserts. They catered weddings! The routes along what had first seemed a labyrinth of hallways from the entrance to the waiting room and the patient rooms on the third floor and then intensive care on the fourth now seemed as familiar to him as the carpeted paths in his own house. He'd come to the Burger King, in fact, just for the pleasure of returning to the hospital. It felt like a homecoming.

Cunningham looked down at his chocolate milkshake. He was surprised to see that he had taken only a few sips of it. He'd started with a Whopper and Coke, but the Coke had tasted metallic and he couldn't eat the Whopper, which had a bad tomato. One bite put him off the whole thing. Burger King made the best shakes in the world, though, and his chocolate shake had tasted wonderful. That was why he was surprised to find that, after sitting there a good half hour, he'd drunk so little of it. He tried to take a sip of it but couldn't swallow.

He'd rather be in the hospital. And at this point in his life, there was no earthly reason for him not to do exactly what he wanted.

Outside, the January wind made his face felt brittle, and it was all the more pleasant to be back inside the hospital again. Warm. The soft, aqueous light in the pale green hallways. The elevator doors opening and closing with a gentle ssss like … what? It didn't matter. No answers were required in the hospital. Or maybe the hospital was all answers, and there was no more need of questions.

On the fourth floor, the nurse behind the desk in the intensive care unit gave him a little wave, and Cunningham waved back by extending his right hand and fluttering his fingers. Years and years and years ago he would put his hands up to his throat and flutter his fingers while giving a self-satisfied, mincing smile, and his wife would laugh and laugh. No one could beat his Oliver Hardy imitation. Of course, he had the figure for it. In the bitter decades that followed, all laughter between them was sardonic, derisive, and wry. But then had come the change in the last few months, and he and his wife enjoyed sitting on the couch next to each other watching Seinfeld reruns. Who would have guessed that Seinfeld was her kind of humor? But after all he knew so little about his wife.

Cunningham picked up the pace as he approached room 423. He knew if he slowed down the slightest bit, he might stop altogether, turn and around, and leave. He loved the hospital, but not room 423.

He charged into the room, gave—absurdly, he realized—that little finger-fluttering wave, and said, “OK, you all go get something to eat now.”

Even as he said “you all,” he looked around the room. Where was Rachel?

“Rachel's in the restroom,” Kevin said as if reading his father's mind.

“That's fine, that's fine,” Cunningham said.

Beth Ann, his oldest child, without taking her eyes from the hospital bed, said, “I don't think Rachel needs your approval to go to the bathroom.”

“No, of course not,” Cunningham said, holding his hands up placatingly. But Beth Ann didn't even glance in his direction. Instead, she stood up from her chair, picked up her purse, threw her coat over her arm, and headed for the door. As she drew even with Cunningham, though, she stopped, stabbed a finger at him, and said, “We won't be gone long. Don't go anywhere until we get back. Don't you dare leave her alone for one second.”

“Of course not.”

Kevin followed his sister, lowering his eyes as if embarrassed.

“Kevin,” Cunningham called after him. Kevin stopped and took a step back toward Cunningham. “I've been trying to do better. Things were better between us the last few months. I … ” There were other things he wanted to say. He just wasn't sure what they were, exactly.

“I know,” Kevin said. He extended his hand tentatively as if to touch Cunningham's elbow, but then drew back. “Don't worry about Beth Ann. You know how she can get. Just stay here with Mom.”

“Oh, I will. Don't you worry about that.”

“I know you will.”

Fancy that. Who would have thought it'd be Kevin of all the children to attempt—or allow—a sort of rapprochement with his father? The youngest, Kevin had always been his mama's boy, and all Cunningham's attempts to “connect,” to “bond” with his son had from the earliest been futile. That those efforts had been largely perfunctory, and ultimately pathetic, Cunningham was all too aware. He blamed his son for nothing. Still, a pair of chubby arms thrown around his neck in greeting after a long day at the office, just once, would have felt awfully good. Shouldn't a son's love be unconditional, at least at first, before the son was old enough to realize what an ass his father was?

Cunningham shook his head. Here he went again, falling into the bad old pattern of chip-on-the-shoulder, blame-others, self-absorption. The important thing was to think of Kevin on this night and take pride in a son who once seemed destined to be as big a jerk as his father but now showed the generosity of spirit of a man who could forgive and …

Rachel walked into the room. “Hi, Pop.” She looked around. “Where'd I leave my coat? Oh, there it is.” She took her coat off the tray beside the empty bed closest to the door. Well, it was more a jacket than a coat, an all-weather jacket, dirty and stained, too large for her and too light for January.

Cunningham reached into his pocket and extracted two twenties and a ten. “Kevin and Beth Ann have gone to the cafeteria. Here, take this. Dinner's on me.”

“Well all right, a little of the long green!” Rachel said, stuffing the bills into her jacket pocket. It looked like a man's jacket. Cunningham didn't want to think about where she might have gotten it, what her life was like. The last they knew for sure, she was living in Dallas, but that was years ago. As much as a year would pass without them hearing a word from her, and then she'd show up on their doorstep, stay a day or two, then be gone again. Or she'd call, once from Dallas to ask for money because she was in some kind of trouble. Generally she'd call and talk about nothing, like she saw them every day, no explanation of where she was or what she was doing. Cunningham knew better than to ask. Once, though, his wife had apparently asked the wrong question—Cunningham hadn't been paying much attention—and then she'd screamed and dropped the phone and put her hands over her ears. Cunningham had picked the phone up, but it was dead. His wife had refused to tell him what Rachel had said. And, frankly, Cunningham hadn't wanted to know.

Rachel frightened him. He'd never understood her, not for a moment.

“You'd better go catch up to Kevin and Beth Ann,” he said. “I'll hold the fort here. I won't leaved your mom. Don't worry.”

Rachel shrugged and grinned. “Who's worrying?” She walked off down the hall.

He watched her until she was out of sight. He listened and could hear her footsteps for a few more seconds after that. Then it was silent. No. Not silent. Hospitals are quiet, but never silent. If you listen carefully enough, you can always hear elevator doors opening and closing on well-oiled bushings, nurses' steps (just a hint of sound in rubber-soled sneakers), papers being shuffled, a phone ringing in the distance, a cry. Always something. He stood listening intently to the varied, soft, subtle sounds of the hospital at night.

Then he turned to the second bed in the room, not the one with the tray where Rachel had draped her jacket but the other bed on the far side of the room beside the window. The one where his wife lay dying. She would die this very night, probably. In a few hours. Or minutes. She might well die this very instant as he watched. Now. Now.

He walked over to her. There were tubes going into her, coming out. He reached between the tubes and put two fingertips against her cheek. She did not react to the touch and felt cold, as if she were dead already.

“Hi, Glenda,” he said. She didn't answer.


Beth Ann, Rachel, and Kevin—“the kids,” as Cunningham and his wife called them—were back in no time. A passing nurse saw them all standing and brought them a couple of extra chairs. They thanked her profusely but continued to stand, awkwardly, like guests at a dinner party all anxious to leave but none wanting to make the first move. Kevin said something about the weather, and Cunningham started to say something about his milkshake at Burger King, but Beth Ann cut him off. They needed to make plans for the evening, she said. They weren't to leave their mother alone for a minute. She'd spent too much of her life alone, she said, looking pointedly at Cunningham. He looked away. They'd draw up a schedule, divide the night into two-hour shifts, two of them resting while the other two stayed in the room keeping each other awake. That sounded fine, they all said. Cunningham said he and Kevin would take the first shift—he knew that Beth Ann wouldn't want to be stuck with him—and Kevin said that was OK with him. “Whatever,” Rachel said, and Beth Ann nodded. So it was agreed. While Beth Ann was searching in her purse for something to write the schedule of shifts on, though, Glenda Cunningham died.

Some apparatus that she was connected to must have sent a signal down to the nurse's desk because the nurse came rushing into the room at the same time that Rachel, who was the first to notice that her mother had died, let out a little scream like a mouse had run over her foot.

They all stepped back for the nurse, and then Cunningham, Kevin, and Rachel sat down on the metal chairs. Beth Ann continued to stand for a moment longer, and then she too sat very primly with her purse on her knees as if she were waiting for a bus.

Then there was another nurse in the room and a doctor, and they did some things, and then the doctor came over and spoke to them, but Cunningham couldn't have told you what he said.

They stayed with the body for a time, but it wasn't until they were out in the hall that the children began to cry. They stood huddled together, crying, with Cunningham standing at arm's length, awkwardly patting first Kevin and then Rachel on the back. Then Beth Ann said that she wanted to go to the chapel down on the first floor, which shocked Cunningham because he'd never thought of her—or any of his children—as religious. Kevin and Rachel went with her while Cunningham went to the cafeteria and drank coffee. He was there all night, unable to form a clear thought about anything. He didn't know how the children spent their night.

The next morning, Cunningham got a call from Kevin on his cell phone. They met in the parking lot and then drove over to the funeral home to make arrangements. They debated between waiting two or thee days for the funeral. Glenda had relatives in Oregon who would want to come, and Kevin's mother- and father-in-law, who had moved to the Gulf Coast a few years ago, were very fond of Glenda and would want to come, too. Still, they decided on two days, the reason escaping Cunningham.

In the parking lot outside the funeral home, they stood in a loose circle, shoulders hunched against the cold. Beth Ann, who lived in Cincinnati, was staying with Kevin, and Rachel probably was, too, although Cunningham wasn't sure. You could never tell where she'd be from one moment to the next. Whatever the arrangements, Beth Ann and Rachel were in Kevin's car and Cunningham in his own, and the time had come for them to go their separate ways. But parting was awkward.

Beth Ann looked at Cunningham, great pain in her eyes, and he thought maybe this was the time for tears, hugs, some healing. Instead, she aimed a finger at him and said, “Now listen. I don't want you using my mother's death as some grand tragedy in your life that you're going to carry around on your back and get all kinds of sympathy for and feel all sorry for yourself. This isn't about you, understand? This is about my mother. Don't you dare use this, understand?”

“Of course,” Cunningham said. “I promise to be a better boy from now on.”

He finished the sentence with a little hitch in his voice, not an inchoate sob as one might expect but a perverse laugh that caught him by surprise and he was barely able to suppress. It was the “better boy” that did it. Several years ago he'd planted a crop of tomatoes in the back yard, and one of the varieties had been the Better Boy tomato. Why he thought of that now … the stress of the occasion, no doubt. He'd suddenly had this image of himself puffing up like a big fat tomato! If Beth Ann had suspected he was about to laugh, she would have slaughtered him on the spot.

Beth Ann was the first born, and she'd been the apple of her daddy's eye. There were whole decades of his life when he would gladly have said adios to his wife forever—God help him but it was true—if things would only be all right between him and Beth Ann. But she blamed him for the failure of her marriage—with some justice—and blamed him for the estrangement between him and Glenda—with far too much justice—and he knew that things would never be right between them again. There was no hope.

Now Beth Ann let the “better boy” hang in the air between them like something foul. Then she shook her head and walked off toward Kevin's car.

Cunningham drove back to the hospital. There was some paperwork he had to take care of. Afterward he went down to the cafeteria and had a piece of apple pie with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a cup of coffee. It tasted good. He went back to the gift shop and bought a disposable razor, then went to the men's room next to the main waiting room on the first floor, lathered up using hand soap, and shaved. He went back to the gift shop, bought a newspaper and a paperback—some sci-fi novel—and took them back to the waiting room. He started to read the newspaper but dropped off to sleep before he finished the headlines. When he woke up, he was surprised to see that it was late afternoon.

He walked several blocks down the avenue to a Western Sizzlin' where he ordered the all-you-can eat salad bar, but it was a waste of his money. He let the plate sit almost untouched while he drank Coke after Coke and read the entire newspaper. Then he started in on the paperback and read it until he began to get funny looks from the wait staff. He walked back to the hospital.

He sat in the main waiting room reading his book until he got drowsy, then he leaned his head back against the wall and went to sleep. He woke up some hours later with a stiff neck. He walked down to the cafeteria and drank a cup of decaf, then went up to the smaller waiting room on the third floor, where the patient rooms were. He stayed there until it began to get light out.

He walked the halls, at some point found himself up on the fourth floor in the ICU. Uh oh. He was doing an about-face when a nurse called out, “Mr. Cunningham, Mr. Cunningham!”

His son had phoned the hospital looking for him. He was worried because he hadn't been able to contact Cunningham. Cunningham said he must have had his cell phone turned off. He'd been out running errands, that was all. He promised to call his son.

He called Kevin from the lobby, then crossed the street to Burger King and had breakfast. He ate lunch in the cafeteria and dinner at Western Sizzlin' once again, in between reading and walking the halls of the hospital. He hadn't gotten so much exercise in years. That night he slept in the tiny waiting room in the surgery wing, and the next morning was awakened by a security guard. The guard was accompanied by a woman who identified herself as the hospital social worker. She took his hands between hers. “Mr. Cunningham, you can't stay in the hospital any more. You have to go home.” She started to say something about grief counseling, but Cunningham stood up mid-sentence and walked out.

At Sears in the mall he bought a shirt and tie and the cheapest suit they had that fit him and didn't require cuffing, changed clothes in the mall men's room, and was at the funeral home in plenty of time for the ceremony. After the interment Kevin told him that they were having a sort of buffet at his house for the relatives, but Cunningham said he didn't think he would be able to handle that. Kevin nodded as if he understood and asked Cunningham, “What are you going to do now, Dad?”

“I think I'll try growing tomatoes,” Cunningham said. Rachel began to laugh hysterically.

What he would like to do was go back to the hospital. He had a vision of being hired on to do odd jobs. They wouldn't have to pay him much, just let him sleep on the floor of a supply closet, maybe, and eat in the cafeteria. He'd be perfectly content.

Oh, but that was silly.

He drove home and parked at the curb. Even though it was cold out, it was pleasant in the car in the sun.

He recalled his “growing tomatoes” remark and chuckled to think of Rachel laughing. He hadn't really been joking, though. He liked a good tomato. People tried to make life out to be more complicated than it really was. What every man wanted was comfort and to be comforted, the latter more difficult because it required another person. Then too, maybe some few who lived on a higher plane—a Gandhi, a Schweitzer—desired to be comforters, a calling that was beyond Cunningham.

“My my, look who's waxing philosophical,” Cunningham said to his reflexion in the side window, which fogged over from his breath.

He'd been a philosophy major for a short while in college, but, except for a few names, he remembered not one solitary thing about it. He switched to business after he met Glenda, fell in love, and decided he needed a more practical degree to support a wife and children. Well, not met Glenda, exactly. They'd known each other about all their lives, growing up in the same small town and going to school together. He'd lost track of her after high school but ran into her again between his sophomore and junior years of college. Dated. Marriage. Children. Somehow things had gone sour. Once, Rachel, in her inimitable way, had asked, “Now, how exactly were you two able to produce three children? I mean, how did that happen? Osmosis?

What had gone wrong? Cunningham had plenty of time to think about it now. Maybe he'd take up philosophy again! Not that college stuff, though. Probably what had attracted him to it in the first place was how far removed it was from life as men actually lived it. No, the only important questions were, What kind of life have you lived, and Why did you live it that way, and What now?

When he thought of his life, he thought mostly of Glenda and how wretched most of it had been. The why of it was easy: because Cunningham was a spiteful, envious, bitter, petty, selfish man. He'd come to see his role in the disaster of his life more clearly in the last few years, and lately he'd tried to do better by his wife; he hoped he'd brought her some comfort. That wouldn't be enough for Beth Ann, he was painfully aware, and probably not enough for Kevin, who, despite that moment at the hospital when he'd reached out and almost touched his father, had too much of Cunningham in him for lasting compassion and forgiveness. Maybe Cunningham was wrong, though. A man can change, can't he?

The question remained: was the better man that Cunningham had become in the last few months enough to allow him to look back at his life without howling?

In other words, What now?

Cunningham looked at the house, dark and empty.

A few years into their marriage, Cunningham and his wife had gone to their ten-year high school reunion. There'd been a catered dinner and then a dance in the high school gym. The two of them sat at a table and watched their classmates dancing out on the basketball court. Finally, Cunningham got up the courage to lead Glenda out on the floor, where they danced to Bobby Darin's “Dream Lover.” It was a hard song to dance to, especially for Cunningham and his two left feet, but he didn't remember anyone laughing, even though it was fat Jimmy Cunningham and fat Glenda Browne out there. He whispered something in Glenda's ear, and she whispered something back. It was the best moment of his life.

Cunningham stared through his reflection in the car window at the silent house.

“Haunt me,” he murmured. “Haunt me, Glenda.”

Dennis Vannatta has published stories in many magazines and anthologies, including Boulevard, Antioch Review, and Pushcart XV, and three collections: This Time, This Place, and Prayers for the Dead, both by White Pine Press, and Lives of the Artists by Livingston Press.