Shady Acres, Chapters 5 and 6

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?”

“Ha again!”

“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.

“Mike?”

“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.”

“Oh.”

“He was an ass.  I kicked him out after a couple of years …”

“I’m sorry.”

“… 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.”

“Uh-huh.”

* * *

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?”

“Of course.”

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.”

“Get counseling.”

“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?”

“Huh?”

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?”

“Yes, Mike.”

“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?”

“Yes.”

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.”

“Of course.”

“Soon.”

 

 

 

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Shady Acres, Chapters 3 and 4

Chapters 1 and 2 are here.

 

Chapter 3.  A Kitchen Surprise

 

“Here it is,” the clerk said, in front of the door with 20D in bronze lettering above the peephole.

“Thanks, Stanley.”

“Let me know if you need anything.  Boxes.  Garbage bags.”

“Yeah.  Sure.”

Stanley turned and walked back down the hall towards his station at the entrance.  Julie watched him go, until he had settled into his chair behind the counter.  When he picked up the magazine he had been reading when she first entered through the sliding glass doors, Julie turned back to the door.  20D.

She didn’t learn of her mother’s death until her cousin told her in an email that was short and sweet:  Julie, I hope you’re doing OK.  You should know that your mom passed away a few days ago.  The funeral was yesterday.  I’m sorry you couldn’t be here.  Joe.

Julie called the director of Shady Acres and yelled into the phone, “Why didn’t you notify me of my mother’s death?” She was gracious enough to avoid pointing out that Julie had never visited her mother during the seven years she lived at Shady Acres.  Instead, Antoinette Chambliss, the director, asked whether Julie wanted to come to the home and go through her mother’s belongings.  They had yet to pack her stuff up.  Her unit was as it was the day she died.

Julie drove over the next day, the first feelings of guilt she had experienced for a long time creeping into that pit that rests in the center of us all.  Julie lived only five miles from Shady Acres, so it certainly wasn’t the physical distance that had kept mother and daughter apart.  No, it was so much more than that.  Maybe Julie should have been the adult and made the first move, but the emotional gulf had been too vast.  Now, her mother was gone and there was no hope of reconciliation.  Don’t the experts say you should make sure to let those who are close to you know that you love them while you still have the opportunity?  Julie and her mother hadn’t checked off that box.

Julie pushed the door open now and took a step inside, letting the door whisper shut behind her.  “Mother,” she sighed.  The front room — with a mismatched recliner and love seat covered with plastic, an old 19-inch color TV on a rickety stand, and a coffee table stacked high with magazines and old newspapers – was her.  Julie sat on the edge of the loveseat, the plastic crinkling underneath her.  Even with the cover, the White Shoulders her mother had worn as long as she could remember rose up from the furniture.

The tears started then.  Slowly.  First Julie’s eyes misted.  Then she could feel the moisture collect around the rims of her eyes.  Finally, a couple of tears leaked out and streamed down her cheeks before she could wipe them away.  “Dammit,” Julie said to her reflection in the TV screen.  Too much anger.  Too much pride.  A family trait passed down from generation to generation.

Her mother’s anger and pride had drove Julie from her.  Her anger that Julie chose not to follow the life path her mother thought best for her daughter.  Her mother’s pride that prevented her from asking for and receiving help when she needed it.  And Julie’s own version of those characteristics had kept her from finding her way back to her mother.  It had been so long since they last spoke.  More than the seven years her mother had spent at Shady Acres had passed since their last conversation.

Once the tears had stopped and Julie had her fill of the front room, she rose and walked into the kitchen.  Julie wasn’t prepared for what she saw.  On the wall above the small kitchen table, was a collage of pictures, randomly thumbtacked to the wall.  Every single picture was of Julie.  First communion.  Homecoming.  With Neil, her first boyfriend.  Every single class picture from kindergarten through high school graduation, scattered amongst the other pictures.  Smack dab in the middle was an 8×10 of Julie walking across the stage at San Jose State University, diploma held proudly aloft.

Julie fell into one of the chairs at the table and put her head in her hands.  “Mother,” she  whispered.  “Mother.  Why, oh why?”  She cried again as she looked up at the pictures.  How could they have let this happen?

A few minutes later, a knock at the door brought Julie back to the front room, wiping the tears from her face.  “Come in,” Julie called out.  The door opened and an old man shuffled into the room.  “Is Wilma here?”

“Ummm.  No.  Can I help you?”

“It’s my birthday today.  100th.  I didn’t see her at the party.  I wanted to bring her a cupcake.”

“Oh.  That’s so sweet,” Julie began before her eyes misted again and a lump caught in her throat.  Julie leaned against the recliner.  “Wilma died a few days ago.  I’m Julie.  Her daughter.”

“I’m so very sorry for your loss.  Please accept my prayers for you and your family.”  The old man patted his hand on his heart as he spoke.

“Thank you.  Please sit down, Mr. …”

“Mr. Robertson.  But call me Mike.”  Slowly, he bent at his knees, then at his waist and, with a sigh, he backed down onto the love seat.  “Aaaaaah,” Mike sighed.  “It’s been a long day.”

For a few seconds, an uncomfortable silence filled the room.  “Would you like the cupcake?”  He still held it in his hand.

“No, thanks.”

A few more quiet seconds passed before he broke it again.  “Your mother was a wonderful woman.”  He looked at Julie, who couldn’t tell if his eyes were watering out of sadness or if it was just the moisture all old people seem to have in the corners of their eyes.  “She spoke very highly of you.”

“Really?  What did she say?”

“She was very proud of you.  She read every one of your books and always wanted to talk about them.”

“You’re kidding.”  In Julie’s wildest dreams, she never imagined her mother would read her books.  It was Julie’s desire to be a writer, instead of a “professional woman” as her mother so frequently explained, more than anything else, that opened the crack in their relationship.  When her mother learned that Julie wrote erotica, well, the crack ripped wide open.  Julie almost laughed at the idea of her old mom talking with Mike Robertson about her books.  What must that have been like?

“No, ma’am.  I would not kid you about Wilma at a time like this.”  He put the cupcake down on the coffee table and stood up, much more slowly than when he had sat down.  “I should leave you now.  You must want to be alone.”

“Mr. Robertson, thank you.”

“For what?”

Julie shrugged and said nothing.

Mike Robertson began to shuffle towards the door.  Julie rushed to the door to open it for him.  As he got to the door, Julie held out her arms and gave him a hug.  “Thank you for telling me about my mother,” she whispered in his ear.  “Thank you.”

He looked at Julie and smiled a little Cheshire cat grin.

Julie walked back into the front room, letting the door once again whisper shut behind her.  Seeing the cupcake, she picked it up and took a bite.  100 years?  Julie pondered the idea of lasting that long and wondered whether it was worth it.  With a sigh, she walked back into the kitchen and sat down.  An hour later Julie was still looking at the pictures, remembering the when and the where of each and every one of them.  Most importantly, she remembered her mother as she was when each of those pictures was taken.  Were all of the memories good?  Most certainly not.  But they were her memories of her mother and she hoped she never lost them.

 

Chapter 4.  Mr. Robertson’s Neighborhood

Maybe walking hadn’t been such a good idea.  Mike’s feet hurt.  His feet twinged with each step and his hips radiated more pain down his thighs.  But the pain?  Worth it.  Mike wouldn’t have traded the weariness he felt in his bones for anything.  How could he complain?  The day had exceeded Mike’s wildest dreams.  But, it had been a long one.  One more stretch of hallway, with 17C at the end.  If Mike could storm Utah Beach under the fire of the German 88s, he could do this, too.

* * *

As promised, when Mackenzie helped Mike out of bed, he slid his hand around her waist and whispered a sweet nothing to her.  He pinched her ass.  At first, she looked at Mike in surprise, but then she winked.  “Well, aren’t you feeling a little frisky this morning?” she said around a giggle.  “Since it’s your birthday, I’ll let it go, but Mr. Robertson, no more.”

“Yes, ma’am.”  Mike smiled back at her.  “But, please, stop calling me that.  The only Mr. Robertson I know died a long, long time ago.  I’ve told you before.  My friends call me Mike.”

“Aah, I can’t do that.  At your age, you are Mr. Robertson.”

“Mackenzie.”  His voice dropped a little lower.  “At my age, I’ve earned the right to tell you that you are my friend.  Call me Mike.”

“Yes … Mike.”

Once Mike was dressed, Mackenzie asked, “Walker or wheelchair today, Mr. Robertson?”

“Neither.  I’m walking today.  Without the walker.”

“Mr. Robertson …”

“Uh-uh-uh.”

“Mike,” Mackenzie sighed.  “You need at least your walker.”

“Not today.”  He began to walk towards the door, his feet barely clearing the level surface of the floor.  As he passed through the doorway, Mackenzie walked to Mike’s side and put her hand under his elbow.  “No,” Mike said, moving his arm away.  “No.”

“You certainly are the stubborn one today.  Do you mind if I at least walk next to you?”

“Nothing would please me more than to have a beautiful young lady to spend my birthday with,” he said with a wink.

“Well, then let’s go.”  And, off they went at the speed of a three-toed sloth that had lost two toes.

Breakfast passed uneventfully, as did the rest of the morning.  After lunch, Mike took his nap.  There’s only so much protest a 100-year-old man can take.  He was awakened by Mackenzie entering the room.  “Mr. Robertson . . .”

Even in the fog of waking in the early afternoon, Mike expressed his dissatisfaction, “Uh-uh-uh.  No more of that.”

“Mike, they’re having a party for you in the courtyard.  Time for you to get up.”

Once again Mike insisted on walking under his own power.  If anything, as the two walked towards the quad, he felt stronger and younger than he had in the morning.  The next couple of hours passed in the warm sun of a spring afternoon.  A disorganized swirl of residents and workers wished Mike many more birthdays, his friends fell asleep where they sat, Mike blew out ten candles—one for each decade—his friends forgot where they were in the middle of sentences, and there were lots of cupcakes.  Mike’s dentureless gums more than handled a cupcake or two.  Or three.  He was one hundred years old and demanded to eat as many cupcakes as he wanted.  Blood sugar be damned.

In all the hubbub of the afternoon, Mike noticed that two of his closest friends at Shady Acres failed to make an appearance.  To wish him a happy birthday.  When the crowd in the courtyard dwindled to just a few and the late afternoon breeze began to pick up, Mike took two of the last cupcakes and began to make his way out the courtyard and down a hallway towards Betty Ostrander’s place.

When she opened her door, Mike held out a cupcake.  “It’s my birthday, Betty.  I brought you a cupcake.”

“Well, Happy Birthday, Mike,” Betty said, opening the door wider to allow him to pass through the entrance.  “I heard about your party, but I wasn’t feeling well.”

“Sorry to hear that.”

Betty put the cupcake down on the coffee table in front of the sofa.  “Sit down, please,” Betty said, as she sat down at one end of the sofa.  Before Mike sat down at the other end, he reached his hand out to her cheek and caressed it softly.  “Betty, you know that every day I see you, you take my breath away.  The moments we spend together are some of my favorite.”

“Well, aren’t you a sweet, dear man.”  Betty favored him with a smile and the faintest hint of red in her otherwise pale cheeks.  Mike sat down and Betty patted him on the knee.  “Happy Birthday, Mike.”

“It’s my 100th,” he said, beaming back at her.

A minute or two passed in an uncomfortable silence while Betty looked at Mike with a strange look on her face.  In the past few months, her behavior had become more bizarre.  At times, calling him Steve or Joe or, rarely, Nicky.  One time, Mike ran into Betty’s daughter and asked if her mother was okay.  She confirmed for him his worst fear.  “It’s Alzheimer’s.  It just getting worse.”

“Was there a Nicky in her life?”

“Yes.  Why do you ask?”

“She calls me Nicky every once in awhile.”

“Nicky was my father.  Her husband, until he left her thirty-two years into their marriage.”

“Oh.  I’m sorry.”  What more could be said?

Now, in the growing silence, Mike grew concerned that another odd incident may be about to happen.  On his 100th birthday, he hardly wanted to be confused with the man who left her.  Mike decided to leave before the opportunity presented itself.

“You know, in honor of your birthday, I think I want to offer you a special present.”  Too late.  Before he could stop her, Betty started to unbutton her blouse.

Mike rose from the sofa.  “Please, Betty.  Stop.”

“Oh, come on,” she said with a wink.  “Let’s celebrate your birthday.”  She continued to unbutton her blouse until she could pull one side down off her shoulder, revealing a bony shoulder covered with age spots and wrinkles.  Mike walked to her door without looking back.  As the door closed behind him, Mike could hear her.  “Come back, Nicky.  Come back.”  Maybe it was time for Mike to end his protest.  The advance of age was inevitable.  Who was he kidding?

Mike began to shuffle back towards 17C, with one more task to complete.  When he reached 20D, he raised a hand and knocked.  An unknown voice invited him in.  Greeted by a stranger in tears, confusion that had become an occasional companion threatened to sidetrack Mike from his mission.  He fought it off and remembered why he was there.  “Is Wilma here?”

The tear-stained woman shared with Mike the worst news.  Wilma had passed away quietly in her sleep a few days before.  Wilma, who had been the first person to greet Mike with a smile when he first came to Shady Acres, was no more.  That first afternoon, after Gerry and John left Mike in the quad, he had sat in the gathering gloom of dusk with a darker expression on his face.  Convinced that he was in a place for old people where he did not belong, Mike was determined to glare and stare his way out of the home.  His boys would eventually see the error of their ways.  Hopefully, sooner instead of later.

It didn’t last long.  A few moments after Mike sat down, Wilma sat on the bench next to him.  “Good evening.  I’m Wilma,” she said.  The fading light reflected off her teeth, displayed by her wide smile.  There was laughter in her eyes.

Wilma held her hand out.  Mike took it and shook it lightly.  “Mike.  Mike Robertson.”

“Welcome to Shady Acres, Mike.  I’m so glad you’re here.”

“Yeah, well, I’m not.”

“Mike, we all think that when our kids first leave us.  I most certainly did.  I was already struggling with my daughter.  Somewhere along the way, we’d lost touch with each other.  I even hated her for a bit when I first got here.  Haven’t talked to her much since.”  Wilma sniffed a bit and looked at Mike as he glanced at her out of the corner of his eyes.  “It’s okay.  Don’t say it,” she said, patting his hand.

“I still wish I was ‘home.’  But, I’ll never go back there. ”  Wilma withdrew her hand from Mike’s and looked out towards where the sun was setting.  “‘Home’ doesn’t exist anymore, except here.  So, this place is what you want to make of it.”

Wilma stayed with Mike for a few more minutes.  There was nothing more than the small talk that passes between two strangers who have lived a lot of years.  Each day after that, she made a point of finding Mike and sitting with him, sharing more small talk, more smiles, and eventually shared laughter.  Wilma taught him how to play canasta.  Mike taught her cribbage.  Old dogs can most certainly learn new tricks.

* * *

Now, Mike’s first friend at Shady Acres was no more.  It hurt Mike like a punch to the gut that might knock his breath out.  But, standing before him was a young lady in tears.  Mike decided to deal with his own pain later.  Although it troubled him that he had never before seen the woman, claiming to be Wilma’s daughter, he spent the next few moments comforting her with the truth.

Mike laughed with Julie at the idea of Wilma sharing her stories with him.  Two old folks reading and discussing her books full of passion between lovers and strangers, sex in places that made them laugh, and ideas that more than once may have led Wilma and Mike to engage in a little more than they should have.  But that was Wilma.  She discussed anything and everything with Mike and helped him become more comfortable with the vagaries of human nature than he ever had before.  And, more than once she told him, “At my age, I really don’t care if people approve.”

When Mike rose to take his leave and told Wilma’s daughter this, she looked at him with a puzzled expression.  Mike knew then that she had never known her mother.

* * *

The strength Mike felt earlier in the day had left him.  His feet slid along the floor.  His hand reached out to the wall.  The darkness outside was complete.  Lights in the ceiling guided him the last thirty feet to his door.  His breathing was ragged and Mike could smell his own old man scent rising from his pores.  When he arrived at his destination, he reached his hand out, but he was too slow.  Another hand, soft, graceful and so very pale, reached the handle first and opened the door for Mike.  “Come on, Mike, let’s get you to bed,” Mackenzie said with a laugh.

“What are you doing here?” Mike said a little more gruffly than intended.

“I’ve been here all day.  I’ve been keeping my eye on you.”  Mackenzie placed her hand under Mike’s elbow and began to guide him inside.  “You didn’t really think I’d let you go off on this little demonstration of yours without making sure you made it through the day, did you?”

“You’re an angel.”  Mike accepted her assistance now with gratitude.  In a few minutes, he was once again cleaned, brushed, and dressed.  This time for bed.  Mackenzie helped him settle his old bones.

“Good night, Mike,” she said.  “I hope you’ve enjoyed your birthday.  100 is a pretty big number.  You should be proud of it.  You should be proud of everything you’ve done in your life.”

Before Mike could respond, Mackenzie took her young, lovely self from his room, turning the light off as she went.  Mike lay down in his bed for a few moments and pondered the mysteries of the day.  It’s one thing to turn a hundred years old.  It’s another thing altogether to go beyond it.  Tomorrow would be a new day, with new challenges.  The real beginning of Mike’s second century of life.  Mike fell asleep to the same question repeating itself in his head.  What to do?  What to do?

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Shady Acres

This is not a new story.  I wrote it a number of years ago and published it in one of my short story collections.  An event today reminded me of it.  So, thought I’d share.  The story, in its entirety, is more than 14,000 words.  So, over the course of the next few days, I’ll share it a couple of chapters at a time.  Hope you enjoy it.  (By the way, that event today has given me a thought for another piece to add to this story.  We’ll see if I do anything with it.

Shady Acres

Chapter 1.  100 Years

On his 100th birthday, it begins when he doesn’t put his dentures in.  For twenty-two years, after rising from the pillow in fits and starts into a sitting position on the edge of the bed, he had reached to the nightstand for the porcelain representation of his age.  Creaks and pains in his joints complicated the process until now, when he must catch his breath before grabbing for his false teeth.

First, at the side of the bed, covered with the comforters and thick blankets preferred by Elisa, it did not trouble him.  The wearing of dentures.  The daily ritual continued through the years.  When Elisa passed shortly after her eighty-second birthday and three months before their 58th anniversary, it went on, from the bed at Shady Acres Home, where the bed was covered with nothing but a sheet and a couple of thin blankets.  Upon Elisa’s death, his children insisted that he move to Shady Acres.  Bless them for they knew not what they were doing.

It was only recently, confronted by the end of the first century of his life – let that roll around on your tongue for a bit, a century of life – that he began to struggle with these stark and daily affirmations of the deterioration of his body.  False teeth.  Hearing aids.  A walker.  And every once in awhile, a wheelchair pushed by one of the nice young ladies in the nurse’s whites.

Once upon a time, he landed on the beaches of Normandy and fought the Germans, the toughest SOBs at the time.  Well, almost.  The good ol’ boys of the U.S. of A showed the Krauts who was really tougher.  He boxed in the army.  His fighting name was the Stone.  Yes, even in the military, fighters have such names.  His represented his body and mind, his character and will.

At least then.  But, as all such things must, his stone eroded with age.  Worn by years of work, of drink, of abuse he could no longer recall.

Now, he protests, beginning with his dentures.  The faintly chemical taste of the cleaner that they soak in is something he will not miss.  If he cannot chew his food, he will gum it into submission.

Once he has refused the habit of his dentures, he will move on.  When Mackenzie comes in, he will reclaim another part of his soul.  Five days a week, for several years now, she has bewitched him.  Her black hair, blue eyes, and pale skin, remind him of Elisa so many years ago.  The way her breasts fill her uniform and her hips move when she walks.  The white nylons that cover her legs.  Her quiet laugh that fills her conversation.

On his 100th birthday, when Mackenzie helps him stand up, he will put his arm around her narrow waist and feel the curve of her hip under his hand.  “You are ravishing, my dear,” he will say to her with a wink and slide his hand down to her ass and give it a pinch.  He hopes that she blushes with embarrassment.  Maybe she’ll even bat his hand away.  Or better yet, maybe she won’t.  Might she look at him, in that moment, smile, and recognize that he’s not just a dirty old man looking for a cheap thrill.  That there is something more to him than the old sack of bones that he has become.  He may be 100 years old, but he is still alive.  Who knows?  She may even let his hand stay there for something more than a few seconds.   He has no dreams or hope of anything more, but he will do it anyway.  To show Mackenzie that he is still a man.

When his interlude with the lovely Mackenzie is over, he will engage in the third and final protest of the day.  Once cleaned, brushed, and dressed, he will refuse his walker and a wheelchair.  He will walk.  Without assistance.  Without any form of physical support.  It may take him three hours.  He may fall and break a hip or dislocate his shoulder, as he did the last time he walked without any help.  But he will not be afraid.

Mackenzie may insist on holding his elbow for support.  He will refuse her help.  One foot in front of another.  Each step taking him past other units, down a hall, around the corner, through the quad, and into the dining room, where a table and chair await him.  His bones tired, his lungs burning, he will sit down and eat his breakfast.  He will destroy it with his dentureless jaws, confident that he is a man.  He will remember the feel of Mackenzie’s hip under his hand.  He will feel more alive than he has in years, knowing that another one hundred years await.

Tomorrow.  On his 100th birthday, as his first century draws to a close, he will reverse the tide of deterioration.  The beginning of a second century of life, demands a statement.  It will begin with his dentures.

 

Chapter 2.  Feeling a Chill

“Ma, what are you doing?”  She sat buck naked on the sofa.  It was a good thing Stephanie had closed the door.  Stephanie shuddered at the thought of a nurse or orderly walking in on her mother.  Or worse, one of the old guys who was constantly having walker races out in the hall.

“Having dinner.”

“What are you eating?”

“A cupcake.”  Ma giggled then and held it out for her to see.

“Ma?!  A cupcake for dinner?”  Stephanie walked further into the room, ready to take charge.  First, she had to flip the blinds closed behind her.  “And why don’t you have any clothes on?”

“Mr. Robertson, that nice man in 17C, it was his 100th birthday today.  I decided to wear my birthday suit in his honor.”

“You can’t sit here without any clothes on.  Let me get your robe.”

“Why not?  If I want to sit and enjoy a cupcake as our dear Lord made me, why can’t I?”

“Because … because … well, you can’t.  Where’s your robe?”

For a moment, Ma’s face darkened before she giggled again.  “Don’t know and don’t care.  What time is it, Steph?”

“It’s almost 5:30.”

“You know what Mr. Robertson did?  He walked in here a little bit ago and brought me this cupcake.”

“That was very nice of him.”

“No.  That’s not all.”  Ma took a bite of her cupcake, leaving a bit of white frosting on her upper lip.  “He walked in here all on his own.  I haven’t seen him without his walker in years.  But, he came right on in here with the cupcake in his hand and handed it to me.”

“That was very nice of him, but Ma, you need to put some clothes on.”

“He told me I take his breath away.”

“What?”

“Mr. Robertson.  When he handed me the cupcake, I wished him a happy birthday.  He placed his hand on my cheek and said, ‘Betty, you take my breath away.’  He’s such a sweet man.”  Ma slowly licked the frosting off her lip and, opening her mouth wide, stuffed the last half of the cupcake into her mouth.  “Ummmm,” she mumbled through her mouth full of cupcake.  “He almost fell when he was walking out.  That would have been a shame.  Such a nice man, but so old.  Probably would have never got up again.”

“You didn’t take your clothes off while he was here, did you?

“Of course not!”

“Good.  There’s still hope.”

“Well, not completely anyway.”

“Ma!”

“Oh, Steph, don’t you worry a bit.  What’s a 100-year-old man going to do?”

“Jeez, Ma.  What did you do?”

“N-o-t-hing,” she sighed.  In the gloom of her room Stephanie could just barely make out that her mother had rolled her eyes.

“Mama?  Listen to me.”

“What time is it?”

“It’s just about 5:30.”  This is what Stephanie hated most.  Some of the quirks she could handle, but the endlessly repetitive questions were tiring.

“Do me a favor.”

“Uh-uh.”  Ma wiped her lips with her thumb and then licked it, looking for the last bit of sweetness from the cupcake.

It was pointless really.  She was going to do what she wanted now.  The woman whose hair was always perfect, whose home was a shrine to the human existence, and who ruled her two children with a list of rules set in stone, no longer had the inner guide that had controlled her life.  “Nothing.  Never mind,” Stephanie sighed.

“What time is it?”

“It’s 5:30.  I just told you that.”

“Honey, I’m feeling a chill.  Where’s my robe?”

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An Untold Story

It’s a process.  A mission.  To do it exactly right.  It begins across from Westminster Presbyterian where I enter the circuit.  Once across the crosswalk, where the camellias bloom under the shady canopy of a group of redwoods, I turn left.  To the west.   One.  Two.  Three.  Four.  Five. Each step.  Six.  Seven.  Eight.  Nine.  Ten.  Must be counted.  Measured.  Eleven.  Twelve.  Thirteen. Fourteen.  Fifteen.

Why does that woman in 112 always look at me like that when I leave?  I hate it.  Her brow wrinkled and one eyebrow slightly raised.  I can hear her sigh when she closes the door once I get to the stairs.  Then I hear her talking.  But, to who?  I’ve never seen anybody else come in or out of her apartment.  Maybe her husband is bed-ridden.  Cancer.  Maybe in the lungs.  She hacks like she smoked once.  Maybe he did, too.  I dunno.  A child.  That could be it.  At her age, though, it’d have to be a grandkid.  The mother a meth addict and she’s taken him in, but the meth was there when he was born, so his disabilities keep him housebound.

After a couple of blocks, I reach the first challenge.   Where 12th cuts into Capitol Park and snakes into the basement garage of the State Capitol.  If the sign says “WALK” in its faint white lettering, I’m good to go.  On track, I’ll hit 400 there.  401.  402. 403.  404.  And, I’m back on the sidewalk.  405.  406.  407.  408.  Trouble arises when the sign is orange.  “DON’T WALK,” it screams silently at me.  Naturally, I slow my pace and shorten my steps.  I may hit 402 or 403 before I reach the street.  Steps to catch up later.  Across 12th and on towards the corner at 10th, I can continue.  410.  411.  412.  413.  414.

The counting becomes routine and I begin to look at the walkers going in the other direction.  I don’t let them know I’m looking.  I keep walking in my line, along the grass, but still on the sidewalk.  Who knows what would happen if I weaved onto the grass?  I keep facing forward, but I can’t help but glance their way.  The women in their silk blouses, skirts and nylons.  And walking shoes that completely change the look.  I’d rather see them in heels.  Ah, here comes one now.  Wavy auburn hair, a snow white blouse that almost sparkles in the morning sun, and a skirt that hugs her hips and stops inches above her knees.  No comfortable shoes for her, she walks in heels with a man, his tie loosened, the top button of his shirt undone and his sleeves rolled up.  As they pass, I’m tempted to look back, but I don’t.  With a last quick flick of my eyes, I see the metal on their fingers.  Married.  Yes, but, there’s something about them.  To each other?  No.  But…

At the corner, I turn to the North.  If I’m on pace, I should be right at 800.  Two more blocks, past the water fountain, surrounded by rose bushes, and spraying water twenty feet in the air, I reach L Street and turn right.  1,200.  1,201.  1,202.  1,203.  These two blocks can be a problem as well.  If there are demonstrators that I have to work around.  Even if I do, I still have time to make it up.

Yes, my cheeks are red.  Bright and shiny.  Particularly late in the day, after I have walked the circuit.  How many times?  Most days I have lost track.  As the days progress, my face is not just sunburned.  It is chapped and peeling.  “Stop staring at me,” I want to yell at the other walkers.  The judgment bleeds off of them.  Too many times, I see walkers approach and move towards the outer edge of the side walk, while I keep my line on the inside.  I know they see and wonder what’s wrong with me.  The regulars and I know each other only by sight.  No words are ever exchanged.  If only they knew the importance of my task.  They don’t, so I don’t yell.  Instead, I scratch absentmindedly at the scabs.  And walk.  And count.

Four blocks later, I hit 2,000 steps.  And, a block later, I reach the home stretch.  The corner of 15th and L.  2,200 steps if I have managed this the right way.

On my last circuit in day light, I’ll turn left and walk the mile to Loaves and Fishes for a free meal.  I don’t count those steps.  Nothing to prove there.  Just an empty stomach to fill and more strangers to avoid.  The walkers stare at me in judgment.  The homeless and druggies at the shelter are whacked.  And stupid.  The help isn’t any better.  More nights than not, the women behind the table ladling out the slop, making sure nobody gets more than their share, speak to me of Jesus and the Lord.  They do it quietly because they aren’t supposed to preach.  They know it.  I know it.  I don’t need their beliefs.  Did Jesus ever count his steps?

A right turn though leads me to continue.  2,201.  2,202.  2,203,  2,204.  2,205.  Left foot.  2,206.  Right foot.  2,207.  Left foot.  2,208.  Right foot.  2,209.  Four hundred more steps and I turn right at N.  A block from home.

It’s all of the other walkers who are fools.  I may come out in the same pair of jeans and white shirt every day, adding layers of burned skin to my already damaged cheeks.  But, I know that the circuit is not a mile.  I’ve heard them say it.  Some old, fat lady saying to her partner, “One lap,” while she huffs and puffs, “and we’ve put a mile in.”  Fools.  A mile has 2,000 steps.  You walk around Capitol Park, you’ve hit 2,800 steps.  Almost a mile and a half.  I know.  I walk.  I count.  Each step.  Six.  Seven.  Eight.  Nine.  Ten times a day.

***END***

 

I work in downtown Sacramento.  A few years ago, I started a project based on some of the characters I have seen there over the year.  Tentatively titled K Street Stories, I view it as a collection of short stories that connect to tell a larger story.  As with most of my projects these days, I got to a point and then got bogged down.

One of those characters was a man I saw regularly in and around Capitol Park, the beautiful park that surrounds the State Capitol.  Weather permitting, he was always walking around the park in a white t-shirt and blue jeans.  Weather not permitting, he was always walking around the park with a winter jacket on.  Over the years, he deteriorated.  His face showed more age, his shoulders were more stooped.

As he walked, he rarely looked at those walking by him, other than furtively.  And I never saw him talk with anybody.  He seemed to be in his own world, walking endlessly around the park.  Turns out he had a story and I got it wrong.

 

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Rifat Had A Dream

“Papa.  I’m scared.”  Sami whispered.

“Ssshhh,” his Papa whispered back.  “There is no reason to be scared.  We will be going soon.  Where we will be safe.”

They whispered in the dark.  In the cold.  Their breath creating misty clouds.

Once upon a time Papa was a baker.  He owned a little shop on Nile Street, just down from the Alforat traffic circle.  For years, Papa’s kollaj and zarda fed the masses.  Lines at Rifat’s were not uncommon.  They came for his halva and stayed for his awameh.  They took home Rifat’s baloza.  And in the darkness of an Aleppo night, they shared it with their families, their friends, their neighbors.

Whether Alawi or Sunni or Shia.  Druze or Christian.  Sect didn’t matter.  Religion was what one did in one’s home.  In one’s mosque or church.  This was Aleppo after all.

They came for his pastries and his treats.

Until they didn’t.

* * * * *

Refugees from Syria over 10k plus more coming. Lots young males, poorly vetted. @RealDonaldTrump

* * * * *

At first Rifat thought that maybe it was just one of those swings.  Sometimes things slowed.  Sometimes things picked up.  In moments, he wondered if he might make it.  In others, he thought he might need to hire help.  That he surely needed to keep the lines moving faster.  Those other times — when the line formed early in the morning with workers, replaced later by government clerks, and then filled in by the women of the neighborhood who wanted a treat for the table– were more than they weren’t.  Rifat was successful.  He dreamed of an education for his little Sami.  Maybe of a little house in the wooded hills of his childhood, where he could return in his final days.

Then there was a bomb.  An explosion.  Just down the street.  Past Alforat, but close enough that he felt the shock.  The windows of his little bakery shook.  Flour dust rose and then settled again.  And for a moment Rifat worried about his family.  About his wife, Rima, and the little one, Haya.  And Sami, his son.  His legacy.  The little boy who laughed in the light and trembled in the dark.  Rifat could tell the explosion was not near his home, but still.  An explosion in Aleppo.  The rebels.  The fight.  He supported it.  He wanted it.  An end to Assad and his treachery.  His brutality.

But he was a simple baker who wanted nothing more than to make a living, love his family, and see the next day.  And dream his dreams.

He ran to the door.  To the street.  To Alforat.  He saw clouds of dust thrown into the cloudless sky.  Heard the wailing sirens ululating and echoing down the cement corridors. He ran no further.  He had seen enough.

Rifat closed his bakery for the day.  He returned home and held Rima and told her it was temporary.  That Assad would soon be gone and life would be better.  He quieted Sami and Haya.  He heard the stories later of the dozens killed.  One day he walked past the rubble.  Little did he know that day that the rubble would remain for years to come.

In the morning, before the sun rose, he returned to the bakery.  He kneaded the dough.  Mixed the spices.  Opened his doors.  And the line wasn’t there.  Instead, somebody on a motorcycle sped by and a man on the back threw a brick through his window.

* * * * *

If I had a bowl of Skittles and I told you just three would kill you. Would you take a handful? That’s our Syrian refugee problem. #MakeAmericaGreatAgain

* * * * *

Rifat closed early.  Boarded the window and prayed that it would be all.  He had seen the stories of Tunis and of Tahrir.  He knew of the treachery of his own government in years and decades past.  Of chemical weapons and of villages leveled. He wanted a change, but his bakery was his everything.  He prayed that the revolution would come but that its damage would pass him by. Stay in Damascus.  Or in the hills and villages.  Aleppo was a cosmopolitan city of tolerant people.   A boarded window was nothing, he knew.  He hoped.  He prayed.

Soon though Rifat’s business changed.  As the fighting grew closer, as lines were drawn, Rifat did what he could.  Instead of the pastries and treats he had been known for, he began to make pita by the basket and handed it to those who stumbled by his shop.  Far too many of them were children, coated in dust, shell-shocked expressions on their faces.

The bombs fell more frequently.  The sirens wailed all too often.  Chlorine gas that left so many choking and gasping.  Families wiped out.  Children orphaned.  Those that remained knew nothing other than hunger and fear and despair.  The least he could do was turn his dwindling supplies and what he could gather from the bakery’s back door in the dark hours of the morning into bread to feed the hunger.

* * * * *

Just tried watching Saturday Night Live – unwatchable! Totally biased, not funny and the Baldwin impersonation just can’t get any worse. Sad  @RealDonaldTrump

* * * * *

Haya was the first.  The dark days of a cold winter, while the war raged in other places but Aleppo lay in mutual states of siege.  Rebels on one side of the line, the government on the other.  Nothing got in.  Nobody got out.  More days when he had nothing to bake with than those when he could.

When his little girl began coughing and burning hot, Rifat searched for medicine.  He begged at the makeshift clinics, where the wind whistled through tarps that covered the holes in the walls, and nobody was warm.  Rifat offered bribes to doctors who looked at him out of haggard faces, their eyes sad.  All he got was a shake of the head and little Haya coughed some more.  Wheezing and rattling, the skin around her rib cage sucking in when she tried to take a breath.  Her eyes sinking into dark circles.

Rima pleaded with Rifat, “You must do something.”  He could only beg some more.  His baking could not heal Haya.

And so she died one cold, dark night, bundled between Rifat and Rima.  Her breathing labored, her eyes rolled back into her head.  Sami slept nearby.  In the morning they bundled her up.  Sami sobbing.  Rima in a quiet daze.  Rifat stone-faced.  They took her to the hospital where they said she was dead. There was nothing they could do for her.  “But we will take her body for you.”

Haya’s body was taken to the basement where it was left with the others.  Rima sat in a corner of their home where she could look out the window.  It seemed she never blinked.  It seemed she didn’t see a thing.  Rifat didn’t know how to reach her.  He could only walk through the room, slowing as he went, thinking of something to say.  But no words came.  He moved through to the kitchen.

* * * * *

Has anyone looked at the really poor numbers of @VanityFair Magazine. Way down, big trouble, dead! Graydon Carter, no talent, will be out! #RealDonaldTrump

* * * * *

Rifat returned to his bakery, making pita when he could.  When he had the ingredients for it.  When he didn’t, he sat at his counter and counted the hours.  The minutes.  The seconds.   What was once a busy street now stood mostly empty.  People rushed from corner to corner, huddling in doorways, looking to the sky.  Sure, the men gathered in his bakery and sometimes he closed his door and walked down to Akram’s grocery where the men huddled amidst the empty shelves and the coolers that no longer had power to keep their empty spaces cold.

They talked of Assad and the rebels.  Akram’s son had joined the Islamic State and was in Raqqa.  Majd’s was with the Nusra Front.  His brother-in-law was on the other side of the line, fighting for Assad.  Fathi’s son was dead.  As was Tarek’s.  And Marwan’s.  Ali’s.

They talked of escaping, but they heard the stories of those who had tried.  Camps where refugees gathered and stayed hungry and cold, if they were able to survive the gauntlet of Hezbollah fighters, government troops, of bombs and land mines.  Besides, Aleppo was home.

They remained and grew hungrier and sicker and more and more dead every day.  Rifat could do nothing more than trudge from his home to his bakery and back.  To speak tonelessly with the men who gathered.  Stare while Sami played.  Look at Rima from a distance and wonder if she would ever smile again.  Would he?

The streets grew more desolate.  The buildings, one after another, were turned into rubble.  First it was buildings, then it was blocks.  Neighborhoods laid in ruins.

aleppo

Their home was safe.  Or so it seemed.

When the helicopters came and the barrel bombs were pushed out their doorways, Sami was with Rifat at the bakery, playing with a ball of dough.  Flour on his nose and in his hair.  For a moment, a strange noise rose from Rifat’s belly.  He laughed.  And then he heard the booms and the ground shook and the noises came from the wrong direction.  He picked his little boy up and he ran, holding his breath.  Around the corner, down the street.

All he found was an arm, with the tattered sleeve of the thawb he had seen her wearing when he left the house that morning.

* * * * *

Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!

* * * * *

A year passed.  Truces came.  Truces went.  When the Russians arrived, it only got worse.  Promises made.  Promises broken.  The bombs grew bigger, the destruction greater.  They got hungrier and sicker and colder and more and more dead.  The rebels and civilians who occupied their little corner of Aleppo were broken.  Only they didn’t know it yet.

Sami had shrunk.  Instead of growing as little boys are supposed to, his growth had stopped.  He rarely played anymore.  He mostly sat on Rifat’s lap, where they could keep each other warm.  To Rifat, his little boy felt as light as a bag of twigs.  He feared he would lose Sami too.

The men began to talk of a new agreement.  The rebels would be allowed to leave.  Assad would retake their corner of Aleppo.  Civilians could decide to stay or to go.

Rifat had no delusions about what would happen to the civilians who stayed.  After years of bombings and snipers and thousands of civilians dying in the streets of Aleppo, he had no doubt what the Assad government thought of the civilians.  He would never feel safe under Assad’s thumb.

He agreed to leave Aleppo.  To re-settle somewhere else.  For Sami.  For himself.  He needed to dream again.

In the quiet, Rifat hushed Sami.  He tried not to shiver.  But the morning was cold as the sun rose to chase the dark away.  There were buses lined up to take them and others out of Aleppo.  To one of the camps the men used to talk about.

Soon he was in a line at one of the buses.  And then they were in the bus and they were leaving Aleppo. It was only thirty minutes before the bombs began to fall.  All along the row of buses, snaking through the hills to a camp.  Rifat saw flames shooting out of other buses and then the bus they were in was struck and the flames engulfed him.  He didn’t know whether it was Hezbollah or the Syrian Army or the Russians.  But for a second or two, he knew he would never be cold again.  That he would never be afraid again.  That he would never dream again.

* * * * *

“@TigerWoods: Can’t wait to get back out there and mix it up with the boys. –TW  #heroworldchallenge” Great to have you back Tiger – Special! @RealDonaldTrump

 

* * * END * * *

To the people of Aleppo, the rest of Syria, and all of the other places where humans slaughter each other while the rest of the world does nothing, my humblest apologies at this ridiculously feeble attempt to write a story that expresses my rage at your suffering.  No words I can put together, no story I might weave can possibly portray accurately the horrors of your lives.

But I needed to write this.  For much of the last few years, I have turned a numb, blind eye towards Syria.  My youthful idealism and belief that “something must be done” in situations like this has been replaced by the exhausted belief of an older man who recognizes that we can’t right every wrong or protect every innocent against evil.  As I’ve come to this realization, my frustration at the many brutalities humans inflict on each other has been replaced by numbness.  There is nothing I can do.  I will live my own life and do what I can to raise my kids right and love those around me.  And not do harm to others.

But something happened over the course of the last year.  It was the picture of the little boy covered with debris and blood, sitting in a chair.  It was other pictures.  And finally a post a friend put up on Facebook where she essentially screamed at the heavens about this outrage.  And I felt it again.

What bothered me the most, beyond the needless death and destruction, the human brutality, was this.  That our next President has been remarkably silent about this tragedy.  With all of his tweeting and everything else, I cannot find any reference to him commenting on Aleppo other than in one of the debates when he said something along the lines that “Aleppo was lost.”  As though it’s nothing more than a country on a Risk board.

Sorry, Donald, but it’s not whether Aleppo is lost or not.  The people of Aleppo are not like the little plastic pieces in a game of Risk — and they aren’t Skittles either.  It’s whether the Syrian government is committing war crimes and destroying a people.  And more importantly for you, Donald, it is whether they are doing that with aid and resources and support from Russia.  It’s a question of why you remain silent about this, while commenting on everything else under the sun.

All of the tweets included in this story are from Donald Trump, except for one.  The tweet comparing Syrians to Skittles apparently is from one of his sons.

If you want some real reporting on the recent tragedy in Syria in which Aleppo residents accuse the Syrian government going in and executing civilians, go here.

If you’ve got this far.  Thank you for reading.

 

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Aleppo

“Papa.  I’m scared.”  Sami whispered.

“Ssshhh,” his Papa whispered back.  “There is no reason to be scared.  Someone will come for us.”

They whispered in the dark.

Once upon a time Papa was a baker.  He owned a little shop on Nile Street, just down from the Alforat traffic circle.  For years, Papa’s kollaj and zarda fed the masses.  Lines at Rifat’s were not uncommon.  They came for his halva and stayed for his awameh.  They took home Rifat’s baloza.  And in the darkness of an Aleppo night, they shared it with their family, their friends, their neighbors.

Whether Alawi or Sunni or Shia.  Druze or Christian.  Sect didn’t matter.  Religion was what one did in one’s home.  In one’s mosque or church.

They came for his pastries and his treats.

Until they didn’t.

At first Rifat thought that maybe it was just one of those swings.  Sometimes things slowed.  Sometimes things picked up.  In moments, he wondered if he might make it.  In others, he thought he might need to hire help.  That he surely needed to keep the lines moving faster.  Those other times — when the line formed early in the morning with workers, replaced later by government clerks, and then filled in by the women of the neighborhood who wanted a treat for the table– were more than they weren’t.  Rifat was successful.  He dreamed of an education for his little Sami.  Maybe of a little house in the wooded hills of his childhood, where he could return in his final days.

Then there was a bomb.  An explosion.  Just down the street.  Past Alforat, but close enough that he felt the shock.  The windows of his little bakery shook.  Flour dust rose and then settled again.  And for a moment Rifat worried about his family.  About his wife, Rima, and the little one, Haya.  And Sami, his son.  His legacy.  The little boy who laughed in the light and trembled in the dark.  Rifat could tell the explosion was not near his home, but still.  An explosion in Aleppo.  The rebels.  The fight.  He supported it.  He wanted it.  An end to Assad and his treachery.  His brutality.

He supported these things, but he was a simple baker.

He ran to the door.  To the street.  To Alforat.  He saw dust rising.  Heard the wailing sirens ululating and echoing down the cement corridors. He ran no further.  He had seen enough.

Rifat closed his bakery for the day.  He returned home and held Rima and told her it was temporary.  That Assad would soon be gone and life would be better.  He quieted Sami and Haya.

In the morning, before the sun rose, he returned to the bakery.  He kneaded the dough.  Mixed the spices.  Opened his doors.  And the line wasn’t there.  Instead, somebody on a motorcycle sped by and threw a brick through his window.

Rifat closed early.  Boarded the window and prayed that it would be all.  He had seen the stories of Tunis and of Tahrir.  He knew of the treachery of his own government in years and decades past.  He wanted a change, but his bakery was his everything.  He prayed that the revolution would come but that its damage would pass him by.  A boarded window was nothing, he knew.  He hoped.  He prayed.

Soon though Rifat’s business changed.  Instead of the pastries and treats he had been known for, he began to make pita by the basket and handed it to those who stumbled by his shop.  The bombs fell more frequently.  The sirens wailed all too often.  Lines were drawn.  Neighborhoods turned into rubble.  Families wiped out.  Children orphaned.  Those that remained knew nothing other than hunger and fear and despair.  The least he could do was turn his dwindling supplies and what he could gather from the bakery’s back door in the dark hours of the morning into bread to feed the hunger.

 

 

To read the complete version of this story, go here.

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Aunt Millie

When I first started blogging, I found a large community of writers and poets.  Some of them undertook efforts to post writing prompts and other ideas for writing stories.  Somewhere along the line those prompt efforts seemed to have dried up.  Or maybe I’m just not aware of them anymore.

Last month, Anna Beguins posted a few prompts and promised to post more prompts each month.  Here’s the link for the stories that resulted from her November prompts and the prompts for December.   If you’re a writer, I highly encourage you to join in the fun over at Anna’s blog.  Many of my stories have come out of prompts provided by others.

And here’s my entry for one of the November prompts.

 

Aunt Millie

“She could start an argument in an empty house,” goes one Southern expression. It pretty much describes my mother. Momma was a never-ending bitch machine.  Always complaining.  Arguing about this.  Fussing about that.   She could argue about the sun being too hot and the wind too cold, all at the same time with equal force.

I’m no longer sure if I ever saw her crack a smile and if such a thing did happen, I’d hate to think what brought it about.

Momma endlessly harangued Pops. He worked too much. He didn’t make enough money. He stayed out late. He was home all too often for her taste. It didn’t matter what the man did, she found something wrong with it.

“Stanley,” she’d shriek.  “You’re just not good for anything.”  This after he came home late at night after pulling an extra shift at the factory to earn a little more pocket change for her.

“This house is falling apart and you just sit there,” she’d sneer.

Pops was sitting there.  In a kitchen chair trying to bend his body to a position to get his shoes off.  “Yes, dear.  What needs fixing?”

And off she’d go, rattling off a list of things while she left the kitchen and went into her room, slamming the door on her way.

I always liked those moments the best. Once she left the room, he’d look over at me and smile just a bit, a corner of his mouth barely rising.  “Well, Vicki, there is that, I suppose.” I don’t know exactly what he meant by “that” but to me it meant that she was gone from the room. The quiet that followed her was always a blessing.

* * * * *

“Charlie,” Aunt Millie started at a whisper, “what’d you go and do that for?”

“Hmmmm?”

“Now, Charlie, you know what Momma says about the cookies.”

“Don’t you?”

“No cookies before dinner.  And look here, you done eat up all the cookies.”

“What am I gonna do with you?

* * * * *

Aunt Millie was a different story though. Her sister, my mother, may have had a fundamental character flaw. Aunt Millie was the opposite. The sun was always shining in her world. Even if she couldn’t see it.

Aunt Millie was born blind, but it never stopped her.  Never took her down. “Why, Vicki, ain’t the world beautiful?” was how she always greeted me when I visited. We had a routine. I picked her up. We went into town for lunch at Morton’s Diner. She always got the grilled cheese and tomato soup. I got a salad. Then over to Zippy’s for a sundae. And back to her house, where we sat on the porch. With ice cold lemonade on the wicker table between us, a breeze rustling the leaves and may be a cow or two in a distant pasture mooing low and long, that’s when she would say it again, “ain’t the world beautiful?” with a long sigh, a sip from her glass, and a pleased smile on her face.

When Charlie, her only child, was run down by a drunk driver, his bike going in one direction, his body in another, Aunt Millie withdrew a bit.  She got a little quiet. Uncle Jack told me she stayed in her bedroom for a couple of weeks. But when she came back out she was almost all the way back to normal. She had the smile and the happy words for everybody, but there was something different about her eyes.

* * * * *

“Jack, you just hush.”  Aunt Millie rolled over in her bed.  I could barely see her in the darkness of her room.  “Sssh, you’ll wake Charlie.”

“Jack … oh, don’t be doing  that.”

“None of that.  You stop it.”

“Jack, I said no!”

* * * * *

I wondered how two such different women could have been created out of the same gene pool and grown up in the same home.  Momma, who could see flowers and sunsets and her beautiful children, but could actually see none of it because of her overwhelming dissatisfaction and unhappiness with what she had.  Aunt Millie, who couldn’t see any of it, but could only see, even in the face of tragedy that the people around her were good, life was better, and all of it should be celebrated.

Until she started seeing other things. Until her world started closing in on her.

When Uncle Jack’s smoking led to lung cancer and death, Aunt Millie soldiered on. Once again, she disappeared for a few weeks, but when she reappeared, her optimism was still there.  It was always a beautiful day in her world.  She knew her house better than anybody. Nobody needed to care for her for some time, but then things started to change. I spent more time there and eventually moved in to care for her. Momma caring for her would have been a catastrophe. Her bitterness could have only caused some greater destruction than was already occurring.

My Aunt Millie even started an argument with a frog.  She was sitting in the front room, Jeopardy was on.  Just before Alex Trebek began reading the final answer, from outside the front door she left open to let in the barest hint of a breeze on that humid night, the frog croaked.  It was loud and it didn’t stop at just one.

“Well, you just hush up,” she yelled at the frog. “I can’t read the answer.” As though the frog would even know or care.

“Crrrooooaaaak,” the frog replied.

Aunt Millie fumbled for the remote, but couldn’t find it.  “Oh my dear, you horrible frog.  Hush, hush, hush!”

The subject was Men of Science. Alex Trebek began, “The symbols for …”

“Crrrroooooooaaaaaaakkkkkkkk.”

“… phosphorous & erbium.”

“Well, damn you,” Aunt Millie rose from her seat and pushed open the screen door.  “Where are you, stupid frog?  Messing with my Jeopardy.  Come on out where I can see … oh, never mind.  Just shut the hell up.  7:00 to 7:30.  That’s all I ask.”

“Crrooaakk.”

Aunt Millie wiped the sweat from her brow.  “Get on outta here.”  She stamped her cane on the wooden porch a couple of times.  “Go on.”

“Croak.”

The sound of something wet plopping on the porch, sounding like it was right in front of her, maybe right on the top step just a couple of feet away, stilled Aunt Millie.  She wiped at her brow again and took one quiet tentative step forward.

“Crroooaaaakkk.”

It was there right there.  Aunt Millie lifted her cane and took a swing, a vicious swing.  And missed, nearly upending herself before catching herself with the porch railing.  “Damn frog,” she muttered at it.

Another wet plop followed by another and then silence.  Blissful silence except for the crickets chirping, which had never been a problem.  Back in the front room, the Wheel of Fortune music came on as Aunt Millie stomped back in.

“Turn the damn thing off.”  I told her what the final answer was.  “It don’t matter now,” she grumbled.  “It’s too late.  Turn the damn thing off.  The Wheel’s no good for me.” This wasn’t the Aunt Millie I had loved since I was a child. She was an imposter.

I turned the TV off and I helped Aunt Millie to bed.  Before I made it out of the room, she argued with Uncle Jack. Even swatted like he was there and she was keeping his hands off her.

In the morning, I woke to find her in the kitchen already. She stood in front of the sink, looking at the kitchen table, reaming Charlie for stealing some cookies.

In the afternoon, she slept with a smile on her face.

And at night, once again Uncle Jack came to her. I left my Aunt Millie with him. Maybe he could bring back her happy memories.

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