Chapters 1 and 2 are here.
Chapters 3 and 4 are here.
Chapter 5. A Quiet Night
As darkness descends on Shady Acres, there’s one more stop to make before we shut this down for the day and see what the dawn has in store for Mr. Robertson’s neighborhood. The hallways are quiet now, except for the random sounds of a residential care home winding down.
At the reception desk at the entrance, the clacking of the keyboard as Dana flips between her Facebook page, her email, and entering information from the day’s incident reports mixes in with the swish of pages turning. Next to Dana, Ethan is reading the first of three magazines that will get him through the long night. Every once in awhile, Ethan will chuckle and share a tidbit from an article, but for the most part, Ethan and Dana enjoy the quiet of the long night.
Down the hallway, a mix of noises, none of which register much on the decibel scale individually, combine to create a quiet din. The random beep of a machine and the less random deep-throated snore comes through closed doors. In the darkened hallway, the wet slosh of a mop pushed back and forth by the janitor who whistles softly to himself. Depending on the time of year, the rush of air when the air conditioner or heater turns on. And, every once in awhile, the squeak of a nurse’s white shoes as a need arises that requires attention.
These are the sounds that carry us to our last stop. In the corner of Shady Acres reserved for the medically fragile in need of skilled nursing, machinery that whirs and beeps, breathes and measures. We zoom in on Unit 2.
Slide the door open quietly so you aren’t noticed. It won’t be difficult. The door opens and closes without a sound. Settle into the chair by the door and watch. In a bed with one railing up and one down, an old man sleeps. He is propped up on pillows and his legs create tiny, twin mountain ridges under a thin blanket. The man’s sleep is not that of a man tired from the day. It is the sleep of a man cursed by his age for he has slept like this for more than a year now. One day, shortly after lunch, the old man, who we’ll call Charlie, complained of a headache and lay down to take a nap. It must have been quite the headache for he sleeps still.
There are no machines keeping him alive. There is, however, always a pitcher of water on the table by his bed, just in case, he should happen to wake and request a drink. On the table on the opposite side there is a vase with plastic flowers. Along the wall, there are two short dressers. One is filled with Charlie’s clothes, and on top, a stack of books. There are a lot of “just in cases” in the room.
Ever since his nap began, Charlie has breathed in and out on his own 6-8 times per minute, minute after minute, hour after hour, day after day. If you lean closely enough, you can hear the air passing through his slightly opened mouth. His vitals have stayed the same. There has been no emergency, no urgency, other than that created by an old man who does not wake.
In a chair pulled up to the side of the bed, a younger man, let’s call him Andy, sits with his back to the door. Truth is that Andy is no longer a young man. He hit the big 5-0 a few years ago. He has had his own health scares to remind him that one’s life is not much more than a blip in the eternity of history. Chest pains drove him to a cardiologist. It was nothing. His heart was healthy. A couple of years later, he found a lump. It was nothing. It was always nothing, but each time, Andy swore that he would change his life. He had been scared into living his life right.
Yeah, right. Nothing changed. His wife left him long ago. His kids moved far away. He spends his weekends in front of the TV, a bag of chips between his legs, and a beer leaving rings on the coffee table. The yard is a tangle of weeds and rose bushes gone wild. He may or may not shave before Monday morning when he resumes his work week. Yep, nothing has changed. Except for this.
When his father began his nap, Andy began to leave work a couple of evenings a week and visit his old man. For hours, as the sun disappears beyond the horizon’s edge, Andy sits by the side of the bed. One moment sitting back, eyeing his father through hooded eyes. The next, leaning forward with his elbows on his knees, his head in his hands. Always, he keeps his eyes on the old man. When it gets dark enough, a nurse comes in and turns on a small light above the bed. It casts an eerie shadow on Charlie’s face.
If the nurse is Nancy, she stops and places her hand on Andy’s shoulder and whispers to him. “Can I get you anything, Andy?”
For a few seconds, he fails to respond. He is still lost in the wrinkles that create a road map on his father’s face. He is still trying to worm his way into his father’s brain to figure out what made his father the man he was. When the weight of Nancy’s hand on his shoulder finally penetrates his own brain, Andy replies, “No. Nothing. Thanks.”
On this night that we pay a visit, Nancy stays by his side for another minute or two. In all the nights she has come in here, Andy has always been in the same position. He has showed no emotion and asked no questions. “You’re a good son.”
Andy scoffs. “Yeah, right.”
He must be. Nancy thinks to herself when she walks out the door. Only a son who loves his father could sit by his side as Andy does. Is that the only possibility, though? With Nancy out of the room, let’s take a look. It’s the Charlie and Andy show. Considering their current state, it’s really just the Andy show.
The quiet of the room is broken soon enough. “Where did you go?” Andy asks in a whisper, leaning forward and placing his arms on the bed and resting his head there. “I have no memory of you. Did we play catch? Did you tell me about your day when you came home from work? What about a ride in the car? Did we ever get in the car on a late summer evening and drive down the river road with the windows open and the wind whistling around us?”
“Where did you go?” Andy repeats again. You see Andy has no memory of his father, other than of his father lurking in the shadows. Here’s an image of his father driving the family here and there, but there are no words from his father in the image.
Here’s a memory. The dinner table, that paragon of family togetherness, particularly for a white, middle class family of a certain time. On one side, Andy and brother Joe. On the other, mom and sister Sue. At one end, their father sat. Quietly, oh so quietly. The family dinner, a place for families to bond and share their days, to discuss plans for the weeks ahead, and to open up a little piece of themselves.
As the years progressed, the black hole of the old man’s silence sucked the life out of those dinners. The first girl Andy ever brought home, after sitting through one of the family meals, asked him, “Does your family talk to each other?” Andy had no answer. He thought it was normal. To sit at dinner and eat. Talk? Why?
There is something fundamental missing from Andy’s memory of his father. Conversation. Interaction. His father showing any interest at all in who and what his son was. Or, alternatively, revealing anything of himself – of what made him tick. Somewhere along the line, Charlie disappeared. He went back into his office, not just literally, but figuratively as well. Charlie never abused his children, physically, mentally, or emotionally, but is it possible to be harmed by a parent who is always there, but never … really … is?
After years without communication, after Andy grew up and left home, there were baby steps attempted towards something. Providing his parents with grandchildren helped open things a bit, but no matter what, Andy never learned how to talk to his father. Yes, they could talk about the trivial aspects of their day-to-day existences. “Hey, dad, you want a beer?”
“Already got one.”
“Well, where’s mine then?”
“In the fridge, right next to where this one was.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah.” Andy would get his own beer and in the next few minutes the two would sit and drink. Finally, one of them would break it. “Hey, did you see what [fill in the name of any right wing whacko you want] said today?”
“Oh yeah. They just get more and more stupid.”
But, their conversation never went deeper and, more often than not, huge silences filled the time they spent together. The silences filled the void, from one edge of the black hole to the other. While words were exchanged, after all the years, Andy still didn’t know who his father really was.
Andy developed his own black hole that helped contribute to the void. It was a need to ask his father a simple question. He never did get up the nerve to ask the question until it was too late. Fear drove him from the question. Fear of the answer. That fear drove Andy away from Charlie. Its presence whenever they were together helped the silence grow. Now, a year into Charlie’s long nap, Andy asks him over and over, a couple of nights a week, “Where did you go?”
It’s time to leave Unit 2 now, to leave Andy and Charlie to their conversation, which it appears will be no more or less productive for Andy than the years of insignificant talk that have led to this night. Close the door quietly when you leave. Shady Acres at night is a place of peace, of sleep, of old people dreaming their dreams. Tomorrow will be another day.
Chapter 6. A Random Conversation
Mike’s protests of the day before – wait a sec, that’s way too negative, how about celebrations of life, 100 years of it — had apparently been too much. For the first time in years, Mike wasn’t awake when Mackenzie entered his room. His internal alarm clock had worked for years, waking him by 6:00 whether he wanted it or not.
Accustomed to seeing Mike sitting at the edge of his bed, waiting for her to help him get dressed, Mackenzie’s first thought was of concern. When she saw the slight rise and fall of his chest, Mackenzie breathed a little easier. “Rise and shine, Mr. Robertson.” She put her hand on his shoulder and shook him gently. “Come on, sleepyhead.”
“I thought we agreed you were my friend,” Mike said through the fog of waking up. Opening his eyes, he looked at Mackenzie. “It’s Mike.”
“Yes, Mike,” she sighed. “Let’s get you up. Breakfast will be starting soon and I know how much you like to get there early.”
“Gotta have my breakfast hot and fresh. I can’t stand when it gets cold. I ate too much crap in the Army, I don’t need any more of it.” The look of distaste on his face made Mackenzie laugh. Seeing the quirks and foibles the old folks bore with them were one of the things she liked about her job.
Mike insisted that his food be hot when he sat down. Mackenzie had witnessed him plenty of times taking a bite or two of cold eggs, or a sip or two of soup that was no longer steaming, and then push his plate away from him.
His neighbor in 17B, Kevin McFarlane, even at the ripe old age of eighty-nine, insisted on laying the next day’s clothes out before he went to bed for the night. “My mama always did it when I was a kid. I’ve never stopped. She’s been gone a long time now. I feel her just a bit every night when I select what I’m going to wear the next day,” Kevin told her one time when she asked about it.
Across the hall in 17A, Eloise, each and every day, dabbed a spot of perfume behind each ear and on her wrists. “I started using perfume when I was sixteen, against my father’s wishes. Other than the day my own daughter was born, I haven’t missed a day since,” she once explained. “You think that I’m going to let the fact that stuck in this place with a bunch of old people stop me from looking and feeling my best? Well, this is part of how I pretend that I’m still young.”
And, that was what fascinated Mackenzie the most. Each little quirk that somebody from the outside looking in might think was odd had an explanation, a link to something in their past. When given the opportunity the oldsters who populated Shady Acres didn’t hesitate to tell her why they did the things they did. Mike’s hatred of army food. Kevin’s memories of his mother. Eloise’s connection to something helping her feel young, no matter how old she got. Every resident Mackenzie got to know had their own. None of them were the same since none of them shared the same memories.
“Mackenzie, a little help please.” Mike brought her back from her reverie. He was sitting up now and held his arm out. She pulled the sleeve of his pajama top off and then slid it off his other arm. “Where were you just now?” he asked.
“Oh, just thinking. Did you want to take a shower this morning, Mike?”
“No,” he growled. “We’re already late. I guess I really am old. Cripes. I can’t walk around a little bit without getting worn out.”
“Well, not too many people get to 100 and you did quite a bit yesterday,” Mackenzie laughed again. “Anything hurt?”
“Anything hurt? Just my feet, calves, knees, thighs, hips and butt. Even my shoulders hurt.”
“Maybe you should take it easy today. You want me to get a wheelchair for you today?”
“Ha! Not a chance. Get me my clothes. I’m walking again today.”
“Are you going to let me talk you out of it?”
“Okay.” Mackenzie helped him get dressed, lifting his legs carefully to help him with his pajama bottoms and then again with his slacks.
When Mike was dressed, Mackenzie stepped back. “Well, let’s go.”
Mike didn’t move. He just stood there looking at her. “What?” she asked.
“Ah, it’s nothing.”
“No, what is it? You were somewhere else just now, weren’t you?”
Mike looked at her sheepishly. “I’m sorry about the pinch yesterday.”
“Don’t be. I took it as a compliment.”
“No, I’m sorry. It wasn’t right of me to do that. It’s just that …” He stopped and looked down at his hands, the veins on the backs popping out in purple ribbons running in random patterns between the age spots that cluttered up the same space.
“Eh, it’s nothing. Just an old man whose mind runs away every once in awhile.”
Mackenzie sat down next to Mike, close enough that her shoulder brushed against his. “Mike?” she asked again.
Mike Robertson looked over at her and sighed. “You remind me of Elisa, my wife. Same skin. Same eyes.” He looked at her deep blue eyes.
“Same jet black hair.” Mike wanted to reach out and run his hand down the length of the hair that cascaded in a straight sheet of black almost down to the small of her back.
“When you laugh, even, you sound like her.” He shrugged and looked back at his hands. “You remind me of my wife,” he said again.
Mike sighed as a single tear leaked out of the corner of his eye and began its course through the cracks and crevasses of his cheek. “Yesterday,” he said, drawing in a breath, “when you helped me up, for a moment I wanted to forget that I was a hundred years old and that Elisa left me behind too long ago. For just that moment, I wanted to feel like a man again. To … aw hell, Mackenzie, I just wanted to pinch your ass to see what it felt like again. When, Elisa and I were young, she loved things like that. Those gestures that were nothing but told her what I was thinking.”
With a final shrug, he looked at Mackenzie again, the track of that single tear glistening in the morning sunlight coming through the window. “I’m sorry.”
“Shhh. Stop apologizing. I know how much you loved Elisa. I think you’ve just paid me the biggest compliment you could. Now,” Mackenzie paused and leaned over, kissing him quickly on the cheek, her soft lips brushing against the dry, papery skin there, “let’s get you to breakfast or your eggs will be cold.”
Mackenzie and Mike began the walk down the hall. This time, although Mike refused the wheelchair and the walker, he didn’t resist when Mackenzie placed her hand under his elbow at his first stumble. He also didn’t hesitate to slide his hand along the wall, feeling its firm support should he find himself leaning too far in that direction. At a speed that barely approached actual movement, they made their way.
“Mackenzie, you’ve never told me much about yourself. You come in every morning and talk to me about my life, but what about yours?”
“What do you want to know?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I’ve noticed that you don’t have a wedding ring on, so I’m guessing you’re not married.”
“Yes,” Mackenzie said, a little more firmly than she meant. “I was.”
“He was an ass. I kicked him out after a couple of years …”
“… And one kid.”
“You have a child?” Mike stopped and looked at her, a smile brightening his face. “Boy or girl?”
“Boy. His name is Spencer. He’s three. Just had his birthday last week.”
“Why didn’t you tell me any of this?”
“That’s not my job. I’m here to help you, not to tell you about my life.”
“Please, Mackenzie. What did we agree to yesterday? That we’re friends, right?”
“Actually, I think you decided that,” Mackenzie chuckled. “I don’t recall having a vote.”
“Well, what else could we be? You dress me, you help me bathe, you know more about me than most any woman who has been in my life, except for Elisa. Are we not friends?”
Mackenzie stopped walking while Mike took one or two more steps before stopping as well and looking back at her. “Yes, Mike. You’re right. We are friends.” She took a step forward and placed her hand back on his arm. “Let’s go have breakfast.” Together they walked to the end of the hall, turned right and made their way through the quad. “Sit here. I’ll get your breakfast.” Mackenzie directed Mike to the closest open table.
She returned, carrying two trays. One for him, with a pile of scrambled eggs with steam curling up from the yellow mass, a couple of slices of bacon, and a wedge of melon. One for her, with a bowl of fruit, and a glass of skim milk.
“I was a little hard on my ex-husband a few minutes ago. It wasn’t really his fault.”
* * *
She was nineteen when she met Joel Hairston at an end of the year frat party. He was twenty-one. By the end of the night, they were outside, sitting with each other, away from the drunks. By the time summer started a week later, they were together.
A year later, Joel got down on one knee. For exactly two and a half seconds, Mackenzie considered his request and then said, “Yes.” In that briefest of exchanges, Mackenzie was happy. Two minutes later, he broke her heart.
“There’s something else you need to know,” he said, sitting down next to her with her newly adorned left hand covered by his own hands. “I’ve decided to enlist. I want to serve my country and help end these stupid wars. I want to drive those idiots back into their caves.”
Joel had mentioned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan every once in awhile. He had talked admiringly of the soldiers who were “over there” putting their lives on the line. But Mackenzie never thought he seriously considered joining up and fighting himself. Until now.
“You can’t,” she cried. “How can you propose to me and then turn around and tell me you’re going to join the military? How can you do that to me?” Mackenzie took her hand away from his and started twisting the ring off her finger.
“Please, Mackenzie, don’t do that. Keep it on.”
In the end, he got his wish. He enlisted and went to basic training. The wedding took place a few months later, a week before he shipped off to Afghanistan. A week of tears.
He came back a changed man. Gone was the easy-going, fun-loving goofball Mackenzie met at the frat party. Gone was the man who had cried with her and never let go of her during that tough week two years earlier. Now, he never cried except at 3:00 in the morning when he woke up. Screaming and thrashing in sweat-soaked sheets. In the morning, Joel would look at her with eyes that were miles away, and shrug, “Another night in Kabul.” He never touched her except rarely, he grabbed her and held on to her, fiercely, as though he were afraid she was about to melt away.
This was their life for a few weeks until Joel started drinking. The drinking had one advantage. Most nights, he was knocked cold, and he stopped making middle of the night visits to the streets of Kabul. But there was a huge disadvantage. He became useless, sleeping through the day and doing nothing. No job. No help. They began to fight. About nothing usually, which made it all the harder to tell Joel about the something.
His first night home, they made love. It was the last tender moment Mackenzie remembered. Six weeks later, she woke him up at 4:00 in the afternoon after she got home from a day at Shady Acres. “Hey, baby, wake up. There’s something I need to tell you.” Mackenzie opened the blinds in the room, letting the first rays of sun the room had seen in quite awhile.
“Close those damn things! What are you doing?” Joel shoved his head under a pillow.
Mackenzie sat on the edge of the bed and tried to remember the Joel she had married instead of the shell of a man the Army had sent back to her. She lifted the pillow off his head and leaned over to kiss his cheek. The three day stubble chafed her lips and the stench of stale beer caused her to wrinkle her nose. “Joel, I’m pregnant. I think.”
Joel opened one eye and looked at her. “Pregnant?”
“Yeah.” She smiled and rubbed his arm. “That’s great. Isn’t it?”
He closed his one eye and lay there for a few seconds before repeating himself. “Pregnant?” Mackenzie didn’t say a word. Instead, she continued to rub his shoulder. She needed something more than that indifferent question from him. And needed it soon.
After a couple of moments of silence, Joel sighed and sat up. He reached out to her and hugged her. “It is great news.”
“Will you come to the doctor with me tomorrow?”
For a month afterwards, Joel cleaned up his act, barely drinking. Rising in the morning with her, he made her breakfast. He went to each of those doctor’s appointments early in a pregnancy. Soon enough, however, it began to unravel again and only got worse. The cheap beer throughout the day was joined by a joint or two each evening. By the time Spencer was born, Mackenzie was done with him.
“I will not have a pot-smoking, alcoholic in the same house as our son. Either you get help and stop this or you need to get out.”
“You don’t understand,” he screamed back at her. “I need this. It makes the pain go away. You didn’t see what I saw. You didn’t do the things I did. I have to live with my memories every day for the rest of my life.”
“The VA has a waiting list a mile long.”
“That’s an excuse. If you want counseling, you’d get it. Either get help. Stop all the crap. Or get out.”
The Joel she once knew would have made the right choice. The Joel she now knew just looked at her quietly for a moment and then rose from his seat and left. Mackenzie had not heard from him since.
In the three years that followed, Mackenzie raised her little boy, whose laugh developed into something that reminded her of fun-loving Joel, but every once in awhile, she would catch him staring off into space, with a look that reminded her of the other Joel. There was something in Spencer’s eyes that sent a shiver down her spine. He seemed miles away.
* * *
“So, what else do you want to know?” Mackenzie sighed.
His eggs, mostly uneaten, were now cold. “I’m sorry. You were wrong, you know?”
Mike looked at her, absentmindedly pushing her fruit around in the bowl. He wanted to tell her about coming home from Germany after V-E day and how Elisa held him every night for months while he cried. In all the years since, Mike had never told anybody other than Elisa about what he saw on the beaches of Normandy and in the trenches they dug as he hopscotched his way across Europe. Mike wanted to tell Mackenzie about war.
“You weren’t too hard on him.” Mike waited until Mackenzie looked up at him from the glass of milk she was staring at while she swirled the milk around. “You know that I served, right?”
“I saw things during the war that I still haven’t told anybody about. There are some things that I never even told Elisa. I still wake up at night sometimes convinced that I’m back in the trenches. I can hear the mortars whistling in, I can smell the smoke, and hear the screams. I haven’t been ‘normal,’ whatever that may be, for a single day since I got back. It’s always been a fight to stop those dreams from taking over. I understand why your ex-husband struggles, but I cannot, and you should not, forgive him for what he did to you. And to your little boy.”
“Mike. Thank you.”
They sat and ate quietly for a few minutes until Mike pushed his plate away. “I think I’m done with breakfast.”
“Okay. Let’s go.” Mackenzie picked up their plates. “What’s on the schedule for today?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe some cards with Gene.”
“Let’s go find him. You still walking?”
Ambling down the hallway once again, they were silent for a few minutes. “Mackenzie, can you do me a favor?”
“Sure. What is it?”
“Bring your little boy in. I’d like to meet him.”