Chapters 1 and 2 are here.
Chapters 3 and 4 are here.
Chapters 5 and 6 are here.
Chapter 7. Gene
If he opened his eyes, the sun would hurt, and he would be reminded of where he was. He kept his eyes shut. If only he could go back to sleep. That’s all he really wanted. To sleep. This is what Jerry, Bob, and Sherri had done to him. Daniel, years ago had entered the safe haven of drugs and homelessness, thereby checking out from the responsibilities of taking care of their aging father. The other three, though, didn’t hesitate when they reached a meeting of the minds.
“Dad, it’s time for you to sell the house.” Jerry was the spokesperson. He sat across the dining table covered by a white cloth. The sun filtered through the gauzy drapes that covered the windows. Particles of dust floated lazily through the air, twirling, rising and falling in the drafts that made their way through the dining room. “Sherri found a nice place just a couple of miles away. Shady Acres …”
“That’s where old people go to die,” Gene said to his oldest son. “You think I’m ready to die? I’m just fine here.”
“No, Dad, you aren’t. Bob’s kids come over and take care of your yard. Sherri does your laundry for you. You live on frozen food and Twinkies. Ever since Mom died, you just sit in this gloomy house, watching old reruns. You don’t have any friends anymore. You hardly ever go out. None of us think that’s ‘just fine.’ We don’t want you to go to Shady Acres to die. We want you to go there to be with other people and start to live again.”
“You’re just tired of taking care of an old man. You’re ready for somebody else to take over. So you can get on with your lives. That’s what this is about. I like my life just fine.”
“Dad? Come on. There’s nothing wrong with admitting you can’t live on your own anymore. Shady Acres is a nice place. We visited it last week. There are a lot of people there. Younger than you. Older than you. They have a lot of activities and go on trips together. Once a month, there’s a bus that takes them to the Indian Casino. You’ll like it.”
“Dammit, son. I’ve lived in this house for more than fifty years. I practically built it with my own hands. Your mother and I raised you and your brothers and sister here.” Gene looked away from his son and stopped for a moment. His hand fiddled with the coffee cup in front of him. A long, shaky sigh escaped from him. “Jerry, all of my memories are here, inside the walls of this house.” He turned back and looked at him with sad eyes. “It’s my home. Please don’t take me away from it.”
Jerry left a short time later, promising his father that they would talk again, while also obtaining a promise that his father would at least think about it. The two men exchanged an awkward hug. Gene stood on his porch after Jerry pulled away from the curb. Spring flowers were beginning to bloom as the trees filled with new foliage. A breeze swept down the street, carrying the scent of the season along with it. Years ago, at the first sign of warmer temperatures, the children would ride their bikes along the side walk. Up to the corner where the Symington’s lived and back. Over and over. For hours. Gene sat on the porch with a beer in hand. The laughter and shouts of joy echoed even now, years later.
That night, when Gene went to bed, he lay staring into the darkness. More than three years after Abigail passed away, he felt the weight and warmth of her in the space next to him. As he drifted off to sleep, he could hear her rhymthic breathing.
A few weeks later, after a brief rain, Gene fell on the porch steps and broke a hip. The promised conversation took place in the hospital. This time, Jerry, Bob and Sherri were all there to present a united front. Gene put up a fight, but in the end they insisted.
“Dad, it’s for your own good,” Sherri said as he weakened. “Do you think we’d want you to go there if it wasn’t?”
“Honey, do you remember the swing in the back?”
“Of course, I do. How could I forget it? I fell off it and broke my arm. Never went back on it after that.”
“And, Jerry, what about the vegetable garden? You always planted the tomatoes.”
“Dad, I have my own vegetable garden now.”
“Bob? We used to sit in the family room and watch the Three Stooges together. You loved that.” Gene’s long sigh wavered a bit. “Kids, that’s my home. Please let me die there. I see each of you in every room. Your mother is with me wherever I go. Please,” he begged.
“Oh, Dad.” Sherry began to cry. Both Bob and Jerry found themselves looking out the window, at their feet, at the white, unadorned walls. Anywhere but at their father. “It just isn’t that easy anymore,” Sherry said.
Gene looked at each of them and saw that his two sons could not make eye contact with him. “I give up. You kids do what you have to do.”
* * *
Gene lay there. Eyes shut. Curled into as much of a fetal position as his old body could bear. Lost in his thoughts, memories of home, he didn’t hear the door open and close. “Good morning, Gene.” His eyes popped open. Standing by the side of his bed was an old man, stooped over and holding onto the arm of a young woman in nurses’ whites.
“Who are you,” he grunted.
With Wilma’s passing, Mike had decided to take on a new role for his second century of life. It was Wilma, in her role as the informal welcoming committee, who eased Mike out of his own depression when he first arrived at Shady Acres. She helped open his eyes to the many reasons to continue to live. It was now his turn to pay it forward.
“I’m Mike. Mike Robertson.” He reached out a hand to Gene. To shake it, Gene had to sit up and perch on the edge of the bed. “This is Mackenzie,” Mike continued, “She’s a nurse here. I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot of her.” Mike winked at Gene.
“What do you want?”
“Well, you missed breakfast. So, that’s out, but I wanted to introduce myself and see if I could take you on a tour of the place. Maybe we could play some cards.”
Gene looked at Mike and wondered what he could possibly offer him to replace what he had lost. “Nah. That’s okay.”
Mike turned towards the door and looked back at Gene. “Okay. It’s your call. But I’ll be back tomorrow.” He and Mackenzie walked out of the room, leaving Gene alone. In the minutes and hours that followed, Gene sat. Lunch was brought to him. He sat. Dinner was delivered. He sat. As night fell, he laid back down and feel into a deep sleep.
The next morning, when the door opened quietly and Mike walked in, this time alone and pushing a walker in front of him, Gene was dressed and waiting. “Mike, do you play spades?”
“Gene, my man, you name it, I play it. And, I’ll beat you at it, too.”
Chapter 8. A Different Life
Dana knocked even though the door was open. A habit built on six years of working under the prior director, Stanley Garibaldi, who insisted in so many ways on form over function. With Stan, well, you never actually called him Stan. He was always Mr. Garibaldi. Even if the door was open, he expected his staff to wait for an invitation. To any office. To any room in the place. “They expect it. I expect it,” Mr. Garibaldi frequently reminded the staff. “Your generation may be comfortable with a bunch of ‘Hey ya’s’ and ‘aiights.’ But the folks here still believe in a little bit of decorum and respect.”
Things changed two years ago when Stanley Garibaldi left Shady Acres in a cloud of controversy. Dana never learned the real story, but the rumor she believed the most was that there was something a little untoward going on between him and one of the younger residents of the place. Given all of the man’s officiousness and the fact that, by the time he left, he was older than a handful of those who called Shady Acres home, it wouldn’t have surprised Dana that his attitude hid something lurking below.
“Come in,” Antoinette Chambliss said, turning from her computer. “Oh. Hey, Dana. Whatcha got for me?”
“Yesterday’s incident reports.” Dana held the folder out in front of her. “Where do you want me to put them?” Without realizing it, she covered a yawn with her free hand.
“Oh, just set them down anywhere. It’s not really going to matter.” Antoinette laughed and waved her hand over her desk. In a different life, her desk would have been polished and clear of clutter. But, in this life, the desktop was almost invisible under stacks of papers, manila folders, incident reports, books and magazines about aging, and the other detritus of her work life. The only spot where the antique surface of the desk was bare was the spot where her coffee cup went. The years of condensation from the cup had left behind a permanent ring, a scar in the surface of the wood.
In a different life, in a corner of her polished desk, there might be a picture of her with her husband. For a time, she had a picture from their wedding day, which was replaced by a picture of the two of them in Hawaii, sitting on a beach, their toes buried in the warm sand, the sun setting in shades or orange and purple behind them. That picture was eventually replaced by a picture of the two of them, with their newborn daughter.
In a different life, her polished desk and family picture would have been in a corporate office. She would be a millionaire several times over, at least on paper, because of the value of her stock options. She just might be approaching the top of the corporate ladder, poking her head above the glass ceiling.
Instead, Antoinette Chambliss, in this life, after the bubble burst on the internet tech boom and her paper fortune became worth less than the paper it was recorded on, and a couple of years of unemployment, sits behind a desk in the director’s office of Shady Acres. It’s a job she took out of desperation and as a result of time she spent on the nursing home’s board of directors when she was making her way through the corporate world. Rather than living in the center of Silicon Valley, making deals and watching companies grow, she now spends her day in a leafy residential neighborhood, notifying the next of kin, dealing with randy old men and hornier old women whose dementia and Alzheimer’s leave them unable to control their impulses, and making sure her staff doesn’t sleep too much on the job.
And, in this life, the family picture that includes a husband is no more. That last picture fell to the floor and shattered when the rat left her for a 24-year-old bimbo named Azalia. Antoinette still hadn’t figured out what offended her more — Azalia’s age or that he had left her for a girl with a pierced tongue.
The picture on the corner of her desk, with a layer of dust and hidden behind one of the stacks, is of her and Chelsea, her daughter. They’re in the snow, holding snowboards and smiling at the camera. Antoinette’s smile is forced. When the picture was taken, she’d completed her first morning of snowboarding. Her tailbone had hurt. Her head had hurt. It was the last time she had held a snowboard in her hands, other than when she had to tote Chelsea’s around.
“Anything in here I should know about?” she asked Dana, tapping the folder at the top of the mess on her desk.
“Ummm,” Dana hesitated.
“It’s Mike. Mike Robertson.” Dana hesitated again, before continuing. “He fell yesterday.”
“Oh dear …”
“He’s fine. He didn’t break anything, but I think it scared him out of his little demonstration. He used a wheelchair the rest of the day. He’s using a walker this morning.”
“Well, that’s probably better for him anyway.” Antoinette sighed in relief. “Anything else?”
“I don’t think so. Just the usual.”
“Okay. Thanks, Dana.” Antoinette picked up the folder and began to leaf through the reports. Even though Dana kept the database up to date and sent Antoinette an email summarizing the prior day’s incidents, Antoinette still read each incident report. Antoinette didn’t know if it was the handwritten words, the extra little detail, or just her imagination, but she got something from reading the reports that she didn’t get from the database or the sterile summaries Dana prepared. “You done for the day?” she asked Dana.
“Well, get on home. Thank you.”
With another yawn, and a slight wave, Dana turned and walked out.
In this life, today, after reviewing the incident reports, Antoinette sat at her desk and looked out her window. Shady Acres is a large square building. One story. In the center is a large open area the residents call the quad. Paths of crushed stone wander aimlessly through gradually sloping patches of grass. There are flower beds and benches with an occasional trellis covered by bougainvilleas. Along the northern edge, there are several fruit trees. Orange, apple, cherry, and of all things, a couple of pluot trees. In the center of the quad, there are tables and chairs. The window behind Antoinette’s desk provides her with a view to the life that goes by in the center of Shady Acres.
There are moments when Antoinette wishes for that other life. When the bills are due and the numbers don’t quite add up. When it’s the middle of the night and she rolls over into bed and feels the cold spot where her husband used to be. When a resident dies and the family cries. Living in a world where lunch is delivered, there’s a fully-equipped gym in the basement, the nanny takes care of the baby, and the not-yet-a-rat in her life appears to love her looks so much better.
But, then there were moments when she really didn’t mind at all. A few minutes after she turned her attention to the quad, the oldest resident walked out into the late morning sun. Mike Robertson placed his walker in front of him carefully and took a couple of shuffling steps to catch up with it before moving the walker ahead again. Next to him walked Gene Howard, Shady Acres’ newest resident.
Antoinette leaned over to slide her window open. Through the narrow opening, a soft breeze blew, ruffling the papers on her desk and bringing with it the last hint of a chill in the air. The breeze also carried the voices of the two old men into her office.
“Let’s sit in the sun. My old bones need the heat,” Mike said to Gene, pointing to a table in the center of the quad. Mike had a bruise on his left arm and a cut high up on his forehead. Antoinette could see Mike grimacing with almost each step. She made a mental note to check the incident report for his fall to make sure everything was done as it should be.
“Sure, Mike. That’ll be fine with me,” Gene replied. Antoinette had yet to introduce herself to the man so she watched him carefully. She had heard that Gene’s first couple of days at Shady Acres had not gone well. It was her policy to let new residents an opportunity to settle in and adjust to the surroundings. Not so much for the residents, but for herself. Antoinette struggled enough with seeing the old and infirm go through the process of dying, because that was what it was no matter how much family members talked about the “life” of Shady Acres. All the activities, all the “fun,” were really about nothing more than making the dying easier.
What Antoinette really didn’t like to see was those first few days or weeks or, in some cases, months, when somebody first arrived at Shady Acres. When she first took the job, Antoinette made a point of greeting each resident their first day there. But after a couple of months of hearing “I want to go home,” “I why can’t I go home?” and “This isn’t my home, why am I here?” over and over again, and watching sons and daughters walk away with tears in their eyes, Antoinette decided those first couple of days weren’t for her.
Seeing Gene walk through the quad, coming out of his shell, was enough to tell Antoinette that Gene was doing better. She would make a point of introducing herself to him later that day. She continued to watch the two men as they settled carefully into a couple of chairs. Their words faded in and out as the wind ebbed and flowed through her window.