The idea for the redneck hottub was as all great ideas are, born from desperation and crafted in simplicity. Owen needed a hot tub. He had no money to make the necessary renovations to the house, but what he did have was cleverness and a spare bath tub, and before anyone could convince him to put his energy into something more practical, Owen was dragging the clawfoot tub into the backyard where he could create without being disturbed.
When I first met Owen he seemed like a man with a lot on his mind. He went about the farmwork with a sensitivity to the details and an ease about the machinery that was almost robotic in nature. In the evening, he would retire to the den where in the first few months that I worked for him, he would pour over medical journals and spiritual manuals and apothecary’s guides from the New Age market, researching every possible avenue for an explanation of his wife’s declining health. Sometimes he would ask me strange, loaded questions and I wouldn’t know how to answer him, questions like whether or not her complexion changed with certain colored lights or if the tacos I made for lunch were comprised of all organic ingredients. I answered as best as I could, knowing from experience that a man dealt with grief in strange ways sometimes, especially men as intelligent and naturally peculiar as Owen. As a live-in caregiver, I thought it best to put myself in friendly territory with the patient’s family, and in particular with her husband, who I knew would be in need of some help himself when this whole thing was over.
The redneck hottub was far from Owen’s first invention. Earlier in their courtship, he had concocted something called the Story Machine, a sort of music box that would actually tell you a brand new story every night as you fell asleep. He came up with the idea during the First Gulf War when he’d had to leave her to fight for freedom or some shit, when Sherry had told him that the hardest thing to do in his absence would be to sleep soundly with him a world away. I have never seen this machine or been able to ask Sherry to verify its existence, because the night the circuits in her brain began to backfire for the final time, Owen destroyed the thing with a large dull axe and vowed never to build another one.
Usually in cases like this, when there are no children to be concerned with, things become more complicated. Without other people to be concerned for, the couple is left with only their own sorrows to drown in, the air of impending death hanging awkwardly about everything routine. The strange thing about Owen was that even when we got closer to one another, he refused to sink into it at all. He would explain himself to me calmly and in a flat, even voice, describing the unfairness of everything and his desire for vengeance against whatever evil force had gotten hold of his wife. It was as if explaining the workings of a man’s soul were just like explaining the forces that drove his tractors through the fields, imbued with complexity and detail where others may just see mystery. He was willing to continue because whatever fuel God had filled him up with could not sludge, and even as he began to turn his research and his energy away from curing his wife’s ailments, he refused simultaneously to retreat into mourning or to turn himself off from it. I think that, more than anything else, was what made me fall in love with him.
The red neck hot tub was a simple but ingenious design. You start by dragging the bathtub out of the house onto the snow-filled lawn. You dig out a little spot for it and clear away a small pit beneath it, piling up the snow around the tub like buttresses where you can store your tools and cold beer to make your work easier. Pile snow into the empty bathtub, making sure that the snow you’re using has not been tainted with piss. Next, pile up some firewood beneath the bathtub. Get a nice fire going. Not too big, but a good controlled burn. You’re going to want to get out your self-starting butane torch, which is always good, Owen says, when you need fire exactly now. When the snow has sufficiently melted, you can collect the leaves and debris floating in it using your fishing net and skimmer, which should be resting upright beside you in your snow buttress next to your friendly cooling beer. Get the water to a nice boil first to sanitize it, then you’re going to want to let it cool off a bit. After all, it is metal, and it has a fire underneath it. Owen’s solution to this problem was to pile more snow into it to cool it down, and to drop a few pieces of wood into the bottom to sit on and to recline.
From the second story window of the house, we watch him drag tree limbs from the brush and pile them up in a dry spot near the tub. I’ve arranged Sherry’s hair to look fuller.
“He’s building that for you,” I tell her. “He’s been working on the drawings for weeks. You know he’s terrible at drawing.”
I show her some pieces of printer paper that I found taped to the walls of his study. They are crudely done, full mostly of geometric shapes with no sense of scaling. There are stick figures in them. The one with the long hair is labeled “Sherry” and the one with no hair is labeled “Owen!” with an exclamation point the same size as the O. There is one standing in the background, awkwardly holding a shovel and standing beside the wheel chair, and that one is supposed to be me.
“Are you happy?” I ask her, showing her the pictures. “He’s never stopped thinking of you.”
Her lips are wet with saliva that I cannot be sure is communication. I want answers but know they won’t come. In the yard, the smoke is rolling and the steam is rising from the water. He holds up a gloved hand and leans on the handle of his shovel, opening a beer with the other hand. I wheel Sherry to the stairs and carry her the rest of the way, to the chair that is waiting at the bottom. I fix her scarf around her neck loosely, open the back door and wheel her into the yard. I let him undress her and fold her clothes neatly as he hands them to me. Though her body is light and limp, we both carry her to the water and lower her in with the greatest and most gentle reverence. He arranges her head on the backrest and we both test the water to be sure about the temperature. Check her heart rate.
“Do you think she’s comfortable?” he asks me, worried. “Do you think she likes it?”
“Yes,” I tell him. “I don’t see how she couldn’t.”