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A Strange and Marvelous Thing

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It was surely the strangest thing that Alma ever observed in her father's long, strange life.

And it was a wonder that it took so long for the cancer to get him, for Ennis had been faithful to his cigarettes. But once the cancer came, it took him fast and Alma was mostly grateful for that, though she also found it nearly laughable that something called oat cell could be so deadly. Whatever it was, it didn't kill his desire for what was killing him and Ennis tried to cajole Alma even as he lay in the hospital bed with all those tubes sticking in him.

"Come on, just one."

"Daddy, no." Alma smiled and shook her head. She leaned forward and reached out to stroke his thin hand.

A few weeks after the diagnosis (and there wasn't much more than a few weeks until the end), the disease and the Dilaudid started doing something to Ennis' brain and he became positively loquacious, though it wasn't to Alma that he was speaking. She didn't know who he was talking to, couldn't really even catch all the words, and it wasn't just the trademark Ennis mumble that defeated her understanding.

"Hey, Jack ... c'mon over here. Lookit this. See?"

"What'd you say, Daddy?"

Ennis' eyes focused on her that time, but for the most part he didn't pay any attention when Alma spoke though sometimes he gestured to her to move, as if she were blocking his view. At first she thought he was speaking to her, just his words were coming out sort of jumbled. After the first day of his one-sided conversations, she realized she was wrong.

"Who's Jack, Daddy? Do you mean that fishing buddy of yours? Do you want me to try to call him?"

Alma almost missed it when Ennis died. It was close to dawn and she'd been so tired from sitting up in that hospital chair that she'd gotten up to stretch her legs and try to work out some of the kinks in her neck. When she got back to the room, something had changed in Ennis' breathing.

She hurried over to the bed. "Daddy?"

She didn't expect an answer by this time. Even the rambling soliloquies had run down to silence the past few days, all the questions apparently answered.

Alma leaned over the bed. Ennis' heart bumped erratically in his chest once, twice, three times, then stopped. Alma watched, waiting for another thump though wasn't that the most peculiar thing, to see the actual beat of a heart?

"Oh, Daddy."

She closed her eyes for a minute and concentrated on breathing in and out. Just breathe, Alma. But eyes don't have to be open for tears to flow, and the warmth of them trickling down her face made her straighten up. The metal railing of the hospital bed was cold on her palm, cold like ice as she squeezed it hard.

Her vision was a little blurry when she opened her eyes and couldn't believe what she saw, so she rubbed her face, scrubbing at her eyes and her cheeks with an impatient hand. But it was still there when Alma's vision cleared, and it stayed there for another few minutes though it had faded away by the time she went and fetched the nurse with a soft word: "He's gone."

It made her feel a little bit light in the heart to see it though she still didn't completely understand and probably never did. But she did get one thing. When her father died, there was a beautiful smile on his face. She recognized that smile because she'd been its recipient so many times.

It was the one that Ennis always wore whenever he'd see Alma coming up to throw her arms around him. It was his smile of delighted welcome.

"There you are, little darlin'!"

The smile on Ennis del Mar's face the day he died was the most beautiful, mysterious thing Alma ever saw in her life.