Conversations Like This

A Short Story by John Sheirer

They had been hiking for half an hour when Ben stumbled over a root hidden under a layer of leaves. He lunged forward and caught himself by grabbing his sister Beth’s shoulders.

“Holy shit, Ben!” Beth grumbled as she staggered but managed to keep her much larger brother from falling. “Walk much, doofus?”

“Hey!” Ben said through a grimace. “Mom said I reached all my developmental milestones faster than you did.”

“And you’re going the other way faster, too,” Beth replied. “But, seriously, you okay?” she asked as they both stopped to regain their balance.

Ben held a nearby tree as he flexed his right leg. “Nothing three or four operations won’t cure.”

Twenty yards ahead on the trail, Alex and Kelly, their spouses, stopped their lively pace through the autumn New England woods. Alex turned and shouted, “You guys all right?”

“Just fine!” Beth said, waving. “Keep going, honey. We’ll catch up.”

“No you won’t,” Kelly called out with a laugh. “It’s okay. We’ll see you at the car.”

Alex and Kelly always walked ahead of Beth and Ben during their weekly Sunday afternoon hike. Their visits to various trails in the area had become such a ritual that they even hired a babysitter to watch Ben’s toddler, Monty, while they hiked. All four were excited for the day when Monty could join them without whining and needing to be carried after ten minutes.

Ben sighed. “Yeah, okay,” he called ahead to their faster soul mates. Then he spoke softly to his sister. “Those two are in such great shape it makes me ashamed.”

Beth laughed. “Tell me about it,” she said. “Alex gets up an hour before me to exercise each day.”

“No kidding?” Ben responded. “Kelly waits until after work, then runs for an hour on the treadmill.”

“We’re pathetic, aren’t we?” Beth asked. “Early forties going on seventy.” They both laughed.

“We couldn’t be too pathetic if we convinced those two to marry us,” Ben said.

Beth replied, “What do they even see in two broken-down farts like us?”

“It sure isn’t beauty or money,” Ben replied.

“Must be our personalities,” Beth said with a fake smile.

They resumed walking. This time, they had enough room to walk side by side on the widening trail. If either one stumbled, they would have no sibling ahead to catch them.

After a few minutes of silent hiking, Ben’s knee loosened up, and their step quickened. Sweat glistened on their similar broad foreheads. They even closed the gap behind Alex and Kelly by a few yards.

“Speaking of personalities,” Ben said between deep breaths, “did you visit Mom this week?”

“Yeah,” Beth replied. “I went Wednesday instead of the usual Tuesday. Meetings all afternoon on Tuesday.”

“I went before work on Monday,” Ben said. “It was nice to spend an hour with her in the morning. Her room gets good light.”

“Was she surprised when you showed up?” Beth asked.

Ben laughed. “Yeah. She wondered if I got fired. I told her that people were allowed to be late for work now and then if they’re visiting their mother in the nursing home.”

“I’ll bet I can guess what she said about that,” Beth said.

“Okay,” Ben replied. “On three. One, two, three—”

“Then you should visit more often!” they sang out in unison. Then they shared a dignified, understated high-five. Alex and Kelly turned, laughed, and kept walking.

“Did she say, ‘like you sister Karen’?” Ben asked.

“No,” Beth replied, “but I’ll bet she was thinking it.

“I wish I could visit as often as Karen does. I’m sure you do too,” Ben said.

“We just don’t have the time that she does,” Beth said.

“I confess to being jealous that she can work from home,” Ben said. “I don’t actually want to work from home, mind you. When I’m home, I like to forget about work.”

“Me too,” Beth replied. “And I’d get so fat with such easy access to my personal chocolate supply. But it does give her a lot more time to visit Mom than we have.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It’s hard having the best sibling ever.”

“People overhearing that comment might think you’re bitter and petty,” Beth said.

“I am not bitter,” Ben said.

“And only a little petty,” Beth added with a chuckle.

“Well, sure,” Ben said. “And Karen knows we love her.”

“It’s been hard since her divorce,” Beth said.

“She told me that she’s glad she didn’t have kids with him,” Ben said.

Beth lowered her voice. “Don’t tell Karen, but I never liked that turd. She deserves much better.”

“Let’s get her on Match.com,” Ben suggested. “Not quite yet, but soon. She’s almost fifty”

“But she’s definitely not showing her age, unlike us. Maybe she’ll find a guy who can keep up with her,” Beth said.

They slowed their pace, giving up on catching the speedsters ahead of them.

“You’ve got a bug,” Beth said, pointing at her brother’s beard.

Ben slapped at this face with quick, staccato movements.

“Let me,” Beth said. They both stopped as Beth reached up to her brother’s face and flicked the bug away.

“Thanks,” Ben said, smoothing his beard.

“You’re welcome,” Beth replied as they started walking again. “You can repay me by coming to visit me when I’m in the nursing home one day.”

Ben laughed. “I’m older. I’ll be there first.”

“Just by one year,” Beth said. “You never know.”

“We’re lucky,” Ben said. “Those two …” he pointed to Alex and Kelly. “They’ll outlive us by a decade easy. They’ll take care of us when we’re old and feeble.”

“That’s a terrible thing to say,” Beth mock protested.

“Tell me you haven’t thought about it,” Ben replied.

Beth hesitated, looking deep into the woods. “Okay, sure I have. I’m terrible too. But I would never say it out loud.”

“Maybe we should,” Ben said.

“Should what?” Beth asked.

“Say it out loud,” Ben replied. “We should talk about this stuff sooner or later.”

“Yuck!” Beth said, a pained look on her face. She pointed to the side of the trail. “I’d rather drink out of that mud puddle over there.”

“Beavers probably peed in that puddle,” Ben said.

“I don’t care,” Beth insisted. “Drinking beaver pee would be better than talking about getting old and going to a nursing home.”

“True,” Ben said. For a moment, they were quiet. Only their dragging boots and heavy breathing rose above the ambient forest sound.

“Do you have one of those thingies?” Ben asked.

“Thingy? What thingy?” Beth replied.

“You know,” Ben said. “Instructions for what you want done if you end up brain dead or something. A living will.”

“I guess we are talking about this,” Beth said.

Ben raised both hands above his head as if surrendering to a greater force. “I don’t want to either, believe me,” he said. “But we should.”

“There’s no water near here,” Beth said. “So, no beavers to pee in the puddles.”

“Lots of squirrels, though,” Ben said. “With these dry leaves, they’re loud as bears.”

They walked in silence again. Step, step, step. Breath, breath, breath.

“A bear attack might be okay,” Beth said. “Maybe we’ll die quick.”

“Best way to go in a bear attack is quick,” Ben agreed.

“Don’t want to hang on if a grizzly bear chews your face off,” Beth said.

“Grizzlies are brown bears,” Ben said. “We have black bears in New England.”

“Smarty pants,” Beth said. “Brown, black, grizzly—doesn’t matter. They all bite hard.”

“Yeah. Dad was smart about that. You know. Dying quickly,” Ben replied. “Even finished shoveling the driveway so nobody had to finish it for him.”

“Smart and courteous,” Beth said.

“I always admired that about him,” Ben replied.

“You’re starting to look like a bear with that bug-catching beard,” Beth said.

“Kelly likes it,” Ben replied.

“Heart disease is hereditary, you know,” Beth said.

“Have you gone to a cardiologist?” Ben asked.

“Alex made me. Last year,” Beth replied. “The quack said my heart is great. What does he know?”

Ben snorted. “Those two must have been plotting. Kelly nagged me until I went last year too.”

“And?” Beth asked.

“Yeah, I’m good too,” Ben replied. “If you can believe anything a doctor has to say.”

“Not like they went to medical school or anything,” Beth mumbled, kicking a fallen tree branch.

“Hey,” Ben said, “remember how good Mom was at helping Karen when she got sick about ten years ago?”

“You mean when she had H1N1 and then it turned into pneumonia?” Beth asked.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “Mom dropped everything and went to her. Stayed with her for three weeks until she could go back to work.”

“I’ve always felt a little guilty that I didn’t help or even visit,” Beth said.

“Me too,” Ben replied. “We thought we were too busy with our own jobs and lives and whatever. Some siblings we are, huh? But Mom was there for her.”

“Mom’s the best,” Beth said.

“Yep, the best,” Ben echoed.

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were taking turns sprinting twenty yards and then waiting while the other sprinted to catch up. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait. Sprint, wait.

“Those two should have married each other,” Ben said with a chuckle.

“I’m sure they did,” Beth replied. “In an alternate universe.”

“Seriously,” Ben said. “What should we put in our living wills?”

Beth spoke with her eyes fixed on the trail ahead. “Well, don’t pull the plug just because you want all of our big inheritance.”

“Yeah,” Ben said. “There’s probably a few hundred dollars at stake.”

“Mom and Dad weren’t exactly big savers,” Beth said. “And the money from the house is mostly going to the nursing home.”

“What if you have a stroke and can’t talk?” Ben asked.

“Wow,” Beth deadpanned. “Oddly specific. But okay. I can’t talk. Can I still feed myself?”

“Yes,” Ben replied. “Soft foods only.”

Ben pointed to a patch of poison ivy just a few feet off the trail. Beth nodded and maneuvered to keep extra distance from the evil weed that had plagued them both since childhood.

“Can I still walk even if I’m mute and subsist on bananas and apple sauce?” Beth asked.

“Can you now?” Ben laughed, pretending to trip her. “Yeah, but slow and with a walker so you don’t fall and need knee surgery like me.”

“How about going to the bathroom by myself?” Beth asked.

“Number one or number two?” Ben replied.

“All three,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben replied. “You can still handle basic bathroom stuff alone.”

“Then don’t shove a pillow over my face yet,” Beth said.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “Same here.”

Alex and Kelly had stopped sprinting and were stretching to let Beth and Ben catch up.

“What if we can’t read or follow a basic conversation?” Ben asked.

“What if we forget which cabinet we keep the coffee in or say something really fucked up, like, ‘You know, that Trump fella really wasn’t so bad after all’?” Beth asked in a doddering, foolish voice.

“Holy shit, yes! If I ever start rambling about rigged witch hunts or fake news, kill me on the spot, obviously!” Ben replied.

“Because of coffee or Trump?” Beth asked.

“Yes!” Ben replied with a smile.

“Gotcha,” Beth replied.

“You should be having this discussion with little Ben, Jr.,” Beth said, casting Ben a sideways glance and holding back an equally sideways grin.

“That’s not Montague’s name,” Ben said, feigning annoyance.

“I know,” Beth said. “But it’s so fun to think of little Montague as little Ben, Jr. Who is he named after again? Kelly’s paternal great-granduncle twice removed or something like that?”

“Something like that,” Ben said, allowing himself a chuckle. “I honestly can’t remember. But everybody loves the name ‘Monty.’”

“Yeah, that is a seriously cool name for a three-year-old,” Beth conceded. “Years from now you can yell from your hospice bed, ‘Monty, where’s my butterscotch pudding?’”

Ben called out in a sing-song voice to match Beth’s, “And I need my bedpan emptied again, Monty!”

Beth cringed. “Yikes, that escalated quickly.”

“The conversation or the trail?” Ben asked.

“Both,” Beth responded.

From up ahead, Kelly called back, “Are you guys yelling for us?”

“No!” Ben and Beth shouted in unison, exchanging mischievous looks.

As they trudged ahead on an uphill part of the trail, their smiles gradually faded. Sweat renewed on their foreheads, and they were huffing too hard to say anything.

When at last they crested the peak and started back down the slope, their breathing returned to normal.

“It is a comforting thought that Monty will be around when Kelly and I are old,” Ben said softly.

“Yeah,” Beth replied.

“I don’t plan on nagging him to come see us the way Mom does to us sometimes,” Ben said.

“What’s the old saying?” Beth asked. “‘Make a plan and watch God kick you in the nuts?”

“Fair point,” Ben replied, “even if your quote isn’t quite accurate.”

“Parents nag. Kids get nagged at,” Beth said. “It’s in the official job descriptions.”

“What’s up with you and Alex?” Ben asked. “Are you thinking about it?”

“We’re about the same place we’ve been from the start,” Beth said. “We’re happy with our cats and small laundry loads.”

“You’d be great parents,” Ben said.

“Not as good as you and Kelly,” Beth replied.

“Thanks, sis,” Ben said. “And you’re both welcome to nag Monty to come see you guys in the nursing home when the time comes.”

“That kid will have so many grandparents to visit that he won’t have time to hold down a job,” Beth said.

“If all goes well, he’ll be retired by then,” Ben said.

“God, it’s so weird to think about that little guy being retired someday,” Beth replied.

“Yeah,” Ben said. “It was probably weird for Mom and Dad to think of us as grown-ups too.”

“I still think it’s weird that we’re grown-ups,” Beth replied.

“Speak for yourself,” Ben said. “I have no intention of growing up until I have to.”

“Sorry, dude,” Beth replied. “You drive a minivan. That makes you a grown-up.”

“Damn,” Ben said. “That’s a good point. Okay. I give up. I’m a grown-up.”

Ahead, Alex and Kelly were moving again. Beth and Ben noticed that they had almost reached their cars parked in the little gravel lot at the trailhead.

“Praise Jesus, we’re almost back!” Beth said, wiping sweat from her forehead.

“What if we get so bad that we can’t recognize each other or those two up there?” Ben asked, pointing to their spouses.

“That’s a whole different story,” Beth said. “I don’t mind the walker or a little help in the toilet, but not having my mind working or forgetting who I love would really suck.”

“As if your mind works now,” Ben said.

“True,” Beth replied. “Also, I’m rubber and you’re glue, bug guy.”

The brother and sister caught up to their spouses as they waited by their respective cars.

Alex had unlocked their Subaru and was drinking deeply from her water bottle. Beth admired how her long brown hair flowed down her back as she surprised her with a hug.

“I still recognize you!” Beth said with a laugh as she kissed Alex’s face on both cheeks.

“That’s good to hear!” Alex replied. “Let me know right away if that changes, okay?”

Ben gave Kelly a bear hug. Combined, the two big men probably weighed as much as a medium-sized black bear.

“Let’s go home,” Kelly said. “You guys were so slow that the sitter’s probably wondering if we’re ever coming back. And the Patriots game starts in an hour.”

“Can’t miss that!” Ben said through gritted teeth as Kelly slipped into the driver’s seat of their Honda minivan.

“Your husband loves him some football,” Beth said to Ben as they met halfway between their cars.

Ben laughed. “I’m sure he’ll insist on watching the Patriots in my hospital room before they make any decisions about life support and heroic measures.”

“For you or him?” Beth asked.

“Either,” Ben replied. “Depends on whether the Patriots are winning or losing.”

“Do you suppose straight couples have conversations like this?” Beth asked.

“Some of them, sure, I guess. Straights can be as normal as we are,” Ben said. “But Mom and Dad never did.”

“True,” Beth said. “But they didn’t seem to talk about anything important. Maybe that’s a generational thing.”

“Or maybe we just didn’t hear them talking about it,” Ben said. “Who knows?”

“We could ask Mom,” Beth said.

“You go first,” Ben replied.

“We should probably have this conversation with Monty for real,” Beth said.

“Oh, lord,” Ben sighed. “I guess. But not for a few years, okay? Toddlers don’t need to hear this kind of talk.”

“Yeah, we’ll dump this on him when he’s a teenager who hates talking to us as much as we hated talking to Mom and Dad back then,” Beth said with a laugh. “He’ll love that!”

Their laughter ended quickly, and they shared a meaningful look.

“For now,” Ben said softly, “let’s look for the forms and maybe talk to a lawyer, make this stuff official.”

“Okay,” Beth said. “If you insist. And let’s all go see Mom one evening this week. All of us. I’ll call Karen. You and me. Kelly and Alex. Monty, too. She’ll be as excited as Mom to have us all together.”

“Will they allow that many of us in Mom’s room at one time?” Ben asked.

“Maybe. We might break a few rules, but so what?” Beth said. “It won’t be the first time.”

“Or the last,” Ben replied. He pulled his sister into a hug. Neither remembered the last time they did that. And Ben said something he didn’t say often say to his sister. “Love you, sis.”

“Love you too, bro,” Beth replied before playfully pushing Ben away. “Now get the hell home and take a shower. You smell.”

“Speak for yourself, stinky,” Ben said, and he hopped in the van beside his husband and struggled with the annoying seat belt. Kelly reached across Ben, grasped the strap, pulled it smoothly across Ben’s chest, and snapped it into place.

“I want you to live a long time. Safety first, honey,” Kelly said.

“Always, sweetie,” Ben replied.

John Sheirer (pronounced “shy-er”) lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with his wonderful wife Betsy and happy dog Libby. He has taught writing and communications for 27 years at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, where he also serves as editor and faculty advisor for Freshwater Literary Journal (submissions welcome). His books include memoir, fiction, poetry, essays, political satire, and photography. His most recent book is Fever Cabin, a fictionalized journal of a man isolating himself during the current pandemic. (All proceeds from this book benefit pandemic-related charities.) Find him at JohnSheirer.com.

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