by Toni Fuhrman
“So you want me to go to one of those nursery homes.”
“Nursing homes, Grampa,” says Donald.
Donald is a therapist. He’s leading the family charge.
I look around my small living room, lamps lit against the early autumn dark. My family sits poised and breathless, leaning a little forward, taking up every seat. Liz and Clyde on the couch. Renee on a straight-backed chair. Suzanne on the rocking chair. Donald facing me on the upholstered armchair that matches mine.
“I could have sworn they were called nursery homes. You know, for old children. Or is it because we’re dying plants? Never could make up my mind about that.”
“Really, Walter,” says Suzanne.
“Seriously, Suzanne, are we old children or dying plants? Any preference?”
Suzanne sniffs, turning her head away from me. My sister doesn’t like to be reminded that she’s old.
“Grampa, a nursing home is a facility for— ”
“Oh, can it, Donald,” says Clyde. “He knows what the fuck a nursing home is.”
There is a silence, while we absorb the delicious shock of hearing Clyde summarily stifle his son. Clyde is rather mild and tolerant, and we’re all used to Donald.
I glance at Renee, who mimics my raised eyebrows and pursed lips. I used to call her ‘Repeat’ because, when she was a little thing, she would repeat everything I said. Now she’s almost a teenager, thirteen next month, and Liz’s child, through and through.
Suzanne has stopped rocking. She’s staring at Clyde. Liz is pushing her fist against her mouth, but her eyes are laughing.
“Your father is right, Donald. I know what a nursing home is.”
“Well, then,” says Donald. He coughs into his hand. We settle back into seriousness.
I know what a nursing home is. It’s a place set apart from the noisy, messy business of living. It’s a building on a hill or next to a lake or behind a hospital, baptized with an unsuitable name, like Maple Manor or Rolling Hills Estate or Swanlake Village or —Woodview. Populated by the infirm, the discarded, the senile. A sterile zone, where visitors put on cheerful faces and can’t wait to leave. A quarantined island where residents have one exit plan.
What are the statistics on nursing home residents? Did I read somewhere it was eighteen months? That’s generous. More than I’d need.
“Grampa, we’re here because we love you, and we’re concerned about you,” says Donald.
The others nod. I nod. Donald has more to say, but it is to be measured, deliberate.
“Recently,” says Donald, “You’ve had several falls.”
“I’m getting to be a clumsy old fool,” I say with a smile.
“The last time you fell,” says Donald, not smiling, “your next-door neighbor found you unconscious, right here on the living room floor.”
“Trudy came by for our afternoon pick-me-up,” I say. “Turns out it was me she had to pick up.”
Liz giggles. Even though she’s my daughter, I’ve always been able to make her laugh.
“This is serious, Grampa.”
“How serious, Donald?”
“We think you should be in a place where you’re safe and well cared for.”
“There’s a place…a new facility a couple of hours away, in the Cleveland area,not far from Liz and Andrew. She’ll take you there when…if you decide to go back with her tomorrow. Just opened up a few months ago. Everything you need close at hand. The best care. Doctors and nurses right there. Lots of company. Social activities. A nice room with a view of fields and woods—”
Fields and woods. How much of my life have I spent in fields and woods? Donald’s voice goes on, but I don’t hear what he’s saying. I’m walking through crisp, late-autumn fields and woods with Jojo, my best hunting dog. Long since dead but not forgotten. Jojo. I never left a downed duck or pheasant behind while he was beside me. On point he was a beautiful sight, a classic setter head and clean, fluid lines. And when he came back with a bird in his mouth and dropped it at my feet, not a feather was disturbed. He would look up at me and his tail would wave back and forth, like a flag. He knew he was good. He didn’t need me to tell him how good he was.
Liz has gotten up and is leaning over me.
“Are you all right, Dad?”
“Right as rain,” I say, patting her arm. She gives me a one-armed hug and returns to the couch beside Clyde. Clyde is looking down at his hands, examining the nails, scraping at the cuticles. My son isn’t good at eye contact, or any other kind of contact.
“The main thing is, Grampa, you wouldn’t have to be alone. There would be people to look after you, no stairs to climb, no yard to take care of, no snow to shovel in the winter, no chores. You could just take it easy.”
“Really, Walter, when you think of all there is to do around here, why, it would be just a picnic in the park at Woodview.”
Suzanne is sitting in Rachel’s rocking chair, where Rachel sat and read or sewed or held her grandchildren or just looked at me with those violet-blue eyes of hers.
How do you know, when you make love to your wife, that it’s the last time you’ll make love? How do you mark the night, the season, the year? It always seems as though there is more time ahead: time to look at your wife in all her beauty, embrace her, make love to her; time to go camping with your children; time to walk in the fields with your best dog; time to share a fifth with your drinking buddies; time to sit around an open fire and sing, play the harmonica, reminisce; time to put your roadster in neutral and glide down steep hills, like a boy on a sled.
“I miss my Beetle.”
Heads turn toward me. Apparently, Donald has been talking. He stops and says, politely, “What did you say, Grampa?”
“I said, I miss my Beetle.”
“That’s Grampa’s car,” says Renee.
“Was. Was my car.”
Suzanne looks offended, and a little hurt. “You got a good price for it, didn’t you?”
Our last car was a little red Beetle convertible. Rachel and I agreed we’d had enough of size and so-called luxury. We wanted small and cozy. And who needed a moon roof when all we had to do was press a button and there was no roof at all? All of our drives were within the compass of a day, or one night away from home at most. So we chose our ‘roadster’ and headed south, toward the hilly, farm-speckled, Amish country between Mansfield and Columbus, with its quiet towns, plain-food restaurants, neat, horse-drawn carriages. The horses were sleek and sassy. The bearded, black-clothed drivers tipped their hats when we caught their eye. Sometimes the missus unbent just a little and smiled at us.
Oh, the drives we had! The breeze in our hair, the sun on our shoulders, the soft rhythmic tapping on the roof when it rained, and we were warm and dry inside. The picnics by the side of the road, in parks, in quiet cemeteries. How was I to know the last trip we took was our last trip? How was I to know the last time I got in the car and turned over that sweet purring motor it was the last time? One day Suzanne pulled into the driveway behind me, maneuvered me back into the house, and shamed me into turning over my keys. I thought it was only for that day, but that was months ago. I never got the keys back. She got hold of the title and sold the Beetle to her grandson, Daryl, with my “permission” and my signature—a piece of business I can’t remember to this day.
“You were lucky,” says Suzanne. “Lucky you never got picked up. You were a menace on the road. Drinking and whatnot…”
“We just want you to be safe, Dad,” says Liz.
“Safe from what?” I say. “The rest of the world?”
“Yeah, safe from what?” says Renee.
“You were in no condition to drive,” says Suzanne, emphatically.
Maybe it’s better not to know the last times. How could we bear it if we knew? Today we own the keys. We are free. Tomorrow the keys are gone.
This morning I was in my back yard, raking leaves, tying back the grape vines, bringing the hardiest potted plants inside, pouring fresh water in the birdbath, feeding the birds. I held out my hand, with a small mound of sunflower seeds in my palm. A chickadee landed with delicate precision on my thumb, reached for a seed, flew off. I stood there, not moving, while the chickadee and its mates landed and flew off, methodically emptying my hand. It was hard to tell how many of them were in this merry band of foragers. They are blessed with sameness. Neither young nor old. Just fledgling, then adult.
When my arm grew tired, I placed the seed on the stump of the maple that had to be chopped down before we moved in, because it grew too close to the house. It has been, for many years, a seat from which to admire the rest of the trees in the yard. Trees are forgiving plants. They serve the living long after they are dead. This morning, in my back yard, was that the last time?
I say, knowing it will provoke some of those listening, “I’m doing just fine here. Just fine.”
There is a murmur of dissent. I can see Suzanne is irritated and impatient. She likes to come straight to the point. Donald’s measured assault is making her fidget.
“I’ll see if the coffee is still hot,” she says, pushing herself up to her feet. Rachel’s rocker swings gently back and forth. “Walter? Clyde? Anyone?”
I nod. Clyde nods. The others shake their heads. Donald coughs into his hand again. His mother, Frances, tells me Donald is a very good speaker and has taken the Toastmasters course several times. She is quite proud of him.
“Grampa,” says Donald, “we thought you were doing fine. We wanted you to do fine. Dad looked in on you almost every day. Aunt Liz came in whenever she could. You had nursing aides and a woman to clean the house…”
“I never needed them,” I grumble. “I can take care of myself, and I can take care of this house. Didn’t I manage for years after Rachel…?”
“But that was before your stroke, Dad,” says Liz.
I look at Liz. Her eyes are welling up. She cries easily, like her mother used to. Softhearted, both of those women.
“Ah,” I say.
Queer how something that happens to you becomes you, belongs to you, is bound up with you so intimately that you come to own it. I no longer have the keys to my car, and I may be about to lose my home, but ‘my stroke’ will be with me always.
Suzanne comes back from the kitchen with a mug of steaming coffee in each hand. She gives one to Clyde, the other to me. I sip the coffee and say, “It needs something.”
“Cream?” says Suzanne. “Sugar?”
“Something a little stronger,” I say.
“Really, Walter,” says Suzanne.
Liz gets up and goes into the kitchen. She comes back with the half-empty fifth of Jim Beam I’ve stashed in a cupboard and pours a generous shot into my mug.
“Really, Liz,” says Suzanne.
“He’s not driving, Aunt Suzanne,” says Liz, “and this is not easy for him. He needs a little…sustenance.”
“Yeah. Sustenance,” says Renee.
Liz smiles at me and bats Renee lightly as she returns to the kitchen to tuck the bottle away—in the same place, I hope.
“At any rate,” says Donald, apparently unperturbed, “we thought you were doing fine, but then you had these falls, not once but several times—”
“Much better,” I say.
“What?” says Donald.
I hold up my coffee mug. “Much better.”
“Oh,” says Donald.
I follow Liz with my eyes as she comes back from the kitchen and takes her place on the couch next to Clyde. Sometimes I can see Rachel when I look at her, like a ghost at her shoulder.
“Your mother had a necklace like that,” I say.
Liz puts her hand up to her neck and fingers the delicate gold chain. “It’s hers,” she says.
“I thought so.”
Donald coughs into his hand.
“Walter, I think you should listen to what Donald has to say,” says Suzanne.
“Sorry, Donald. I drifted off for a minute. The stroke, you know.”
Liz’s hand moves from the necklace to her mouth as she stifles a laugh.
The hot, laced coffee is beginning to have its desired effect. I feel both mellow and more alert. I fasten my eyes on Donald, who is talking.
“The point is, we tried very hard to accommodate you, Grampa. We wanted you to stay in your own home. We know you’re comfortable here, but—”
“The point is,” says Clyde, abruptly, “it’s not working out. Not for any of us.”
We all look at Clyde. He is leaning forward, his hands clasped between his knees, looking down.
Suddenly I think of Sean, his twin. My eyes blur. I am holding Rachel’s hand, sitting on a hospital bed looking down at her pale face. She is young, so young and lovely, but her eyes are a sad, shimmery, underwater blue.
“What did I do wrong?” she says.
“Nothing,” I say. “Nothing at all.”
“The doctor says it took too long. But we have a healthy boy. Our firstborn.”
“But the other one. My other boy. Where is he?”
“He’s…gone, my love.”
I’m looking at Clyde as I think these long-ago thoughts, and Clyde is frowning at me. I am used to Clyde’s anger, but I’m not immune to it. I know that without his anger Clyde would be defenseless, and a man needs his defenses, especially with a wife like Frances, and a son like Donald.
“What Clyde means,” says Liz, “is we can’t spend enough time with you. I live too far away, Clyde is busy with his work, and Aunt Suzanne…”
“I stop by as often as I can,” says Suzanne.
“Of course you do, Aunt Suzanne,” says Liz. “We all do. It’s just that…”
“I’m going outside for a smoke,” says Clyde, getting up from the couch. He opens the front door and steps outside, leaving behind a welcome gust of cold air.
I take a big sip of the coffee and stand up, mug in hand.
“I think I’ll join Clyde,” I say. “I need some fresh air.”
“I need some fresh air too,” says Renee. “Can I go outside with Grampa?”
“No,” says Liz. “You stay put.”
* * *
Clyde is sitting on the porch steps, smoking, as I close the door behind me. I sit down beside him, nodding toward his cigarette. “Got another one of those?”
He looks mildly surprised, but he raps sharply on his pack, and I pull at the cigarette that sticks its neck out.
“I thought you didn’t smoke anymore,” he says, tossing me a book of matches.
“I smoke on occasion, and this is definitely an occasion.”
“You could say that.”
“There was a time, as you know, when I enjoyed a cigarette, or a good cigar, but after your mother…”
Clyde grunts his assent. Rachel smoked unapologetically for forty years, until it caught up with her lungs and killed her. After that, I lost my taste for it. I prefer whisky now. I sip at the mug I’ve brought outside with me. The Jim Beam burns pleasantly as it makes its way down my throat.
“What do you think I should do, Clyde?”
Clyde lifts his chin, blowing out smoke. “Why ask me?”
“We’re alone out here, son. Tell me what’s on your mind.”
“What makes you think I have to be alone with you to say what’s on my mind?”
This is a typical Clyde response. I let it drift away with the smoke. We sit in silence, looking up at the three-quarter moon behind skittery clouds, until he begins.
“They’re on my case all the time.”
“Yeah. Fran and Don. I’m not doing enough. I’m doing too much. I’m neglecting them. I’m neglecting you. You’re gonna fall down the stairs or burn the house down. We’re gonna get blamed because we’re the only family you have here in town. That sort of shit.”
“It’s just a house, Clyde. I don’t have to live here.”
I say this because I know Clyde needs to hear it. His guilt and distress hang in the chill air like the cigarette smoke.
“But that place, that—Woodview.”
“Maybe Liz can take me in.”
I didn’t mean to say this. I’m sorry the words are out, and that Clyde has heard them. Until this moment, I had not seriously considered leaving my house. My home. Our home.
When Rachel and I bought this house—a two-story Cape Cod much like every other in the neighborhood—we were strapped for money. It was supposed to be our “transition” house, before we bought the house of our dreams. It’s not a bad little house. We painted every inch of it, inside and out, furnished it well, and the back yard is pleasant. Clyde and Liz grew up here. Rachel and I kept it trim and comfortable while we scouted out properties, pored over model home plans, put away money for the house that was to be absolutely new, with no history and no imprint that wasn’t ours exclusively.
But the money never seemed to stay in the savings account, the years went by swiftly, and there came a time when Rachel and I knew this was our last house. It was like accepting a life partner that you had come to love but were never in love with.
“What about Andrew?” says Clyde.
“Ah, yes. Andrew.”
I suppose a father seldom really approves of a daughter’s choice in husbands. Clyde’s choice of Frances was always a mystery to me, but that’s Clyde’s business. Liz, however—so fine and fragile, so sensitive and pretty, so like her mother—why did she choose Andrew, who had already raised a family? But then again, why did Rachel choose me?
I crush out the cigarette stub, swallowing the last drops of the coffee that Liz made so soothingly sweet.
“I’d better go back inside,” I say, pulling myself to my feet with the help of the handrail. “Donald awaits me.”
I look down at Clyde. He’s looking away from me, out across the brief front lawn to the twin maple trees we planted on the curbside when we first moved in. They are both tall and straight now, fixtures on the block. Their leaves are drifting gently to the ground in the crisp October night air. We called them Clyde and Sean.
“Do you…do you still miss him?” he says.
I take a deep breath before I reply, “He’s still here, in you. Your mother and I always said, as long as Clyde’s around, Sean’s around.”
I reach down and grasp his shoulder. He reaches up and puts his hand over mine.
“I’ll be in, in a minute,” he says.
* * *
I open the door and the buzz of conversation stops, like a fly momentarily stilled.
“Is it nice out, Dad?” says Liz.
“It’s a rare and beautiful evening,” I say.
“Yeah. Rare and beautiful,” says Renee.
“Hush up, monster,” says Liz.
“Where were we?” says Donald, glancing at his watch.
“It’s getting late, Walter,” says Suzanne. “I have to leave soon.”
“Apparently, I do, too,” I say.
I look at Liz. She is still sitting on the couch. Renee has cuddled up next to her and put her sleepy head on her mother’s shoulder. Liz is smoothing Renee’s hair and looking at me with something huge and held back in her eyes. Andrew has been crotchety and demanding since his heart attack. There is no room in Liz and Andrew’s house for another old man. Andrew must be placated, and I must be installed somewhere nearby but out of his range. I cannot live out my last days here, in my home.
“About Woodview,” says Donald. “We have a folder of information we can show you, and photos…”
“No,” I say.
“You don’t want to see…?”
“Really, Walter,” says Suzanne. “You could at least look.”
“I’ll go,” I say.
There’s a sudden silence, as everyone absorbs this. Then Donald says, with evident relief, “I’ll arrange…”
I’m still looking at Liz and she at me. I say, “I’ll go with you in the morning.”
Liz nods her head and starts to get up. I motion to her not to disturb Renee, who has fallen asleep.
“Well, then,” says Donald, “I’ll get Dad and we’ll…”
“I’m sure he’s gone,” I say. “He probably went home.”
I stand up. Donald stands up. Suzanne sighs and stands up. Only Liz and Renee remain as they are, close together on the couch.
Suzanne comes up to me and pecks me on the cheek. “You old fraud,” she says. “You had us going there for a while. We didn’t think you’d budge.”
“Just shows to go you,” I say, giving her a wink.
“Well, then,” she says, with satisfaction, “I’ll be on my way. Before the drunks get out on the road.” She puts a finger to her mouth. “I mean….”
I chuckle and help her on with her coat. “Well, Suzanne, you got one drunk off the road for good.”
I walk her out to her car, wait until she backs out of the drive. She leans out the window and says she and Daryl will come to see me in the Beetle. I nod, say I look forward to it, but it doesn’t much matter now. She waves to me as she starts down the street.
Back in the house, Donald is standing with his jacket and scarf on, holding the Woodview folder.
“Grampa,” he says, “You made the right decision. You won’t regret it.”
“Goodnight, Donald,” I say, and shake his hand. “You’re one hell of a shrink.”
“I’m a therapist, Grampa. That’s different…”
“Goodnight, Donald.” I pat him on the shoulder and open the door for him.
“Goodnight, Grampa. I’ll arrange everything. See you at Woodview.”
He hands me the folder and leaves. I wait for him to get to his car and look back at me. Then I wave and shut the door. I toss the folder on a table.
“You look tired, Dad,” says Liz.
“I am,” I say. “If you don’t mind, I’m going to have myself a nightcap, then go to bed.”
“I don’t mind,” says Liz.
She nods. “Same place.”
She nods again.
I go to the “same place” in the kitchen cupboard and pour two drinks, a long one for me, a short one for Liz. I take them back to the living room and hand Liz her drink. Then I switch off the brightest lights, sit down in my chair, and salute Liz before I drink. She does the same. For a while we don’t say anything. All we can hear is the soft snuffling sound of Renee’s breathing. I look around the room, touching things here and there with my eyes. Liz is watching me.
“Is there anything special you’d like to take with you?” she says. “You can take some furniture…lamps, or a chair, or a side table…”
“What about clothes? I’ll pack whatever you want in the morning.”
I shake my head. It seems like too much of an effort to talk. We sip at our drinks. The house creaks and settles around us, exhaling the day’s long expense of energy.
After a while, Liz says, “It will be nice having you close by.”
I nod, and refrain from saying, “But not too close.” I lift my glass and drink down the rest of the Jim Beam. It burns its way deep inside me, and the chill that is always with me subsides a little.
Renee stirs and opens her eyes. “Are you coming home with us, Grampa?” she says.
“I am,” I say.
“That’s good,” she says, and closes her eyes. In a moment she is asleep again.
“Shall I help you take her upstairs?” I say.
“Oh, no,” says Liz. “I’ll wake her up enough to get her to bed.”
“Do you have everything you need? I put clean sheets on the twin beds.”
“Yes. Thanks. We’re all set.”
Thumping my knees in a businesslike way, I push myself up to my feet. “Well, then, this old man is going to bed.”
“We’ll be up in a few minutes.”
“Goodnight, my dear.” I kiss her lightly on the forehead.
“Goodnight, Dad.” She looks up at me. I think, Rachel used to look at me that way sometimes. What did I say to Rachel when she looked at me like that?
“We’ll be all right,” I say. “Everything will be all right.”
* * *
It’s a long climb, I think, as I start up the stairs, and getting longer every day. I suppose I won’t miss these stairs. In my bedroom, I undress quickly and get into bed. I fall asleep at once, then wake up an hour or two later. Eyes open, lying motionless on my bed, I wander from room to room in my mind, touching everything, even the calendar on the kitchen wall with family birthdays carefully noted. Then I fall asleep for another hour or two. I tour the house this way two or three times during the night, before I get up at my usual pre-dawn hour, shave, brush my teeth, dress, go downstairs.
I unlatch the back door and walk outside. The trees, the neighboring houses, begin to emerge from the darkness. The sky is overcast. The air is damp, pungent. There is a moment of profound stillness, then the day reveals itself, gradually, like a seductive woman. How many times have I observed this transition from darkness to light? Yet I never tire of it, just as I never tired of the sight of Rachel. Beauty is always intoxicating, even when it is familiar.
I hear a cheep here and there as the residents of my backyard rouse themselves from sleep, shaking out their feathers. Then I hear a faraway train whistle, mournful, prolonged and, almost in response, the siren call of geese overhead. I look up, waiting for them to pass. It is a goodly flock, in perfect formation, at the apex of the V the leader declaring its transient authority with a resonant honk, a lagger here and there responding as it finds its inevitable place. I watch them until they are out of sight, listening until the last call fades away.
It is full light when I go inside. Liz has started a pot of coffee. I wait for it to brew, then pour it into a mug, along with a little “hair of the dog.” I put the all-but-empty fifth of Jim Beam back in the cupboard and wait for Liz to come downstairs again. When she does, she is fresh, cheerful.
“I’ve packed a bag for you. Clyde will bring whatever else you want when he comes to see you.”
“Is Renee still sleeping?”
She nods. “I’ll bundle her into the car at the last minute. She’ll sleep in the back seat most of the way. Would you like some breakfast?”
I shake my head.
“We’ll stop on the way, when we’re all hungry,” she says. “Give me a few minutes to get ready.”
I finish my coffee and rinse out my mug, wondering if the coffee will be half so good at Woodview. Certainly it won’t have such a kick. I hear Liz scurrying back and forth upstairs, Renee moaning and protesting as Liz rouses her from the deep sleep of the very young.
It is sunny but still somewhat overcast as I take Liz’s keys from the shelf near the front door and go outside to start the car. The twin maples, straight and tall, stand in a puddle of leaves, yellow, orange, red. Most of the foliage still clings to the branches, showy and bright.
I get in the car, start up the motor. Then I turn on the heat and wait for the air to warm up. I remember sitting in the family car next to Liz when she was sixteen, with a brand-new driver’s license in her wallet, eager to show me how well she drove. She backed out of the drive too quickly, going over the curb and scraping the bottom of the car. I was angry with her, and she wept in shame. I wish I hadn’t been so angry.
After the car is warm and purring, I get out, scanning the front of the house as I wait for Liz and Renee. Everywhere I look I see gray paint chipping away from the clapboard. The white window trim is cracked, some of the sealant lifting off the glass. I was going to paint the house over the summer, maybe get Clyde to help me, but somehow I never got around to it.
Toni Fuhrman is a novelist, short story writer, essayist and poet, with a master’s degree in English Literature. The print edition of her novel, One Who Loves, was published in March of this year. Her work has appeared in Eclipse: A Literary Journal, Third Wednesday, Live Oak Review, and most recently, Adelaide Literary Magazine. Her short story, “Water Moon,” was shortlisted for the Adelaide Literary Awards 2017. She also publishes personal essays on writing and reading at http://tonifuhrman.wordpress.com.