Jack started in the assisted living neighborhood of the nursing home but soon digressed to Reminiscence. In the days before euphemisms it was called the Alzheimer’s ward, but that sounded as scary as the disease actually is, and they didn’t want that. His mind had gone, but his eyesight was still sharp—9258, he saw the nurse pressing the keypad. 9258, he repeated in his head. He committed the digits to his cloth handkerchief in neat curly lettering. His washed-out green eyes sparkled with possibility against the richness of his cinnamon colored cheeks.
“What are you writing down?” Chris asked softly, dealing out the playing cards.
“Your mother’s 800 number,” he replied. The other men laughed but Chris only continued dealing cards as if he had not heard.
The women were folding the pink cotton napkins next door in the kitchen. The staff of the home would have done it, but the ladies found the motion soothing—perhaps it reminded them of their glorious homemaker days. They were probably tranqued up. Sales of tranquilizers quadrupled in the 1950s.
He knew it would have to be after dinner. He slurped broccoli cheddar soup mechanically, his spoon dipping smoothly into lukewarm cheesiness.
“Why the hurry, Jack?” Oh, it was the pretty young nurse with the gold necklace and the sweet perfume that reminded him of something sinuous and eternal. The one with black hair pulled straight into a ponytail, who called him by his first name instead of chopping up his last one.
“This-soup-is-amazing!” He exaggerated, trying to convey genuine feeling. Actually, he couldn’t taste many specific things anymore, only general sensations of saltiness, sweetness, and bitterness. Sweetness is most prominent among them; it’s the last taste sensation one loses as age cripples the sensual capacity. She smiled at his appraisal, like Mother Theresa beaming on all the poor folks she came across. He would miss her, but he had to see Jess again. When he saw her, he would tell her that Mother Theresa worked the evening shift in his neighborhood, and sometimes tucked him in before he fell asleep.
As they finished their sugar-free ice cream sundaes, Chuck, a chubby former horticulturist with a slow ambling way about him, leaned in and whispered conspiratorially,
“Hey Jack, I’m gonna uproot the snapdragons after dinner . . . wanna come?”
“Nah, Chuck, I gotta beat those old fools at Gin Rummy after dinner; thank you though,” and thumped him on the shoulder.
Chuck shrugged and said,“Your loss.”
The dinner crowd began to filter out of the kitchen. Some wandered to their rooms, where they lived in a tumultuous state of memories, lost in black and white photographs of dead loved ones. Memories encased in frames, attainable by a glance and hospitable for hours. The others would go to the television room and let their minds be occupied by old films from their day, or sitcoms, or talk shows.
Now was the moment. He rose from his chair and cautiously moved towards the door. He pressed the numbers on the worn keypad, damning himself for being so slow. I used to stop grounders with these hands. He shook his head. Something electronic gave a soft beep of acceptance and a green light flashed. A thrill vibrated through his spidery capillaries.
The door was much heavier than he thought it would be, but it gave in enough to shuffle shoulder first into the next neighborhood. The magenta carpeting distinguished the short windowless corridor that led past the main dining room, then to the front doors of the establishment. Before he could discover whether his body would mutiny, the door clicked open behind him: Mother Theresa.
Eyebrows furrowed at this misplaced human. She asked,
“Jack, what are you doing out here?” She was holding the door open, which made him nervous. An alarm sounded if it was ajar for too long. I might make it out. He turned and started down the hall.
As he slid his orthopedic sneakers, he could hear the chatter of the assisted living folks finishing their meal, their fading prattle and the clink of cutlery flooding his mind: The sounds of near freedom. He sped his pace as he entered the big dining room; he saw a glimpse of light from the large windows before rough carpet smashed his face and chest. The wind was knocked out of him for the first time since his college baseball days. His lightly freckled cheek stung, and something felt wrong in his wrist. He looked down at his feet . . . untied shoelace.
He winced as he heard running footsteps from the door. Incoherent voices spoke in sympathetic tones, soothing, motherly; his vision became dreamlike. Face still against the carpet, he let go of any composure he had left. His breath started to come out as sobs, and tears wet his contorted face. He couldn’t stop and he hated that. He tried to get himself up, but stronger arms took hold of his in an effort to help; he twisted to slap them away and fell to the floor again.
“Just leave me alone,” he said. He could do no better than the pathetic gasp of a hurt and injured old man. He didn’t cry for the pain as much as the humiliation.
“Just leave me alone!” he managed in a tone less like a whimper. The nurses saw a helpless old man crumpled on the floor; they did not see the pool of embarrassment and shame that he had fallen in.
“Don’t move Mr. O’Holloran, we’re going to get help”—but he wasn’t hearing them. He raised himself up, he made it to his knees, and then to his feet, before he tottered dangerously backward. The wallpaper that surrounded him seemed like conveyer belts moving in opposite directions. The nurses stabilized him and tried to turn him around to Reminiscence, but he would not go. Resolutely grasping his wrist, he headed forward, only to be pulled back by the webby grasp of the nurses, Mother Theresa among them.
Jess’ disappointed face was projected on the hall as he pushed forward like a sleepwalker. All he heard was her melodic voice saying come on, dad as he tried for the exit once more. They held him back again, this time constraining his arms so he physically could not continue. The strawberry on his face wrinkled as saltiness slid past the lint and fuzz sticking to it.
“Theresa!” he said, meeting her eyes. “Please let me go, Theresa. I have to see my daughter.” The young girl stood back and covered her mouth as she watched. “Theresa please, please!” But even if she understood his blurred words, she could not humor him. Four nurses were forced to carry his jerking form back into Reminiscence while he screamed nonsensically. As they passed the threshold, Jack latched his fingers across the frame, trying to hold on. He was no match for their youth. Not aware of his last act of defiance, they moved him right past it, lifting a few keratin-weak fingernails in the process.
The room Jack waited in was dim, with two poufy arm chairs sitting across from each other and a soundtrack of beach waves playing from a machine. This was the relaxation room, where they put residents who lost control of themselves to calm down for a while—a time-out spot for octogenarians.
“Hello, Jack,” the portly woman said as she entered the small space. She planted herself across from him. The armchair wheezed. She must have held some authority because he had not seen her before. Probably works up front where she doesn’t have to see the fogies. Jack stared sideways in response.
“Why did you try to leave your neighborhood?” There was that pleasant gentle tone again.
“I was trying to leave the home, dummy.” The woman didn’t miss a beat.
“Why did you try to leave the home?” He didn’t acknowledge her, so she asked again.
“Why did you try to leave, Jack?”
He closed his arms across his broad pointy chest and looked straight at her. “Because I need to see my daughter!” The woman leaned back in her chair as if she were personally wounded by his words.
“Jack, we’ve had this talk before. Remember?”
“You don’t know me. I’ve never seen you before.”
“You have seen me before, Jack, and I explained to you why you couldn’t see your daughter, and why she doesn’t come to visit you.”
Her tone and the fake crashing waves were patronizing him. He felt like a student talking with the principal: unwilling, resentful, self-righteous.
“Your daughter is dead, Jack. She died three years ago, right after you came to live with us.” His face loosened; his eyes went numb and lost focus on the glowing lampshade.
“I remember the day it happened, we couldn’t get you to eat. You had to drink purées for two weeks.” His mouth went dry. He was no longer there.
“I’m so sorry, Jack, but you shouldn’t have tried to leave. People care about you here.”
The armchair re-inflated as the woman stood and left the relaxation room. What a fool they had let him be. Why had no one told him his daughter was dead on those mornings he crowed about her visiting him? Why had they made excuses for her not showing up? And where did they send the letters I wrote? He stayed in the muted room until bedtime, when a couple of nurses walked him, feet dragging down the empty dim hall, off to his quarters.
That night two months ago after the large woman talked to him, he tried to recall the conversation she claimed they had. It might be true, but he didn’t want it to be. He could hardly distinguish between dreams and reality now. Since he couldn’t clearly remember, he decided it wasn’t. Either way, he had a new idea.
He dressed in front of the mirror. He slipped on his favorite jacket, a brown leather bomber, over a wrinkled white softball league T-shirt. Short fresh fingernails in place, he lovingly enhanced the stature of the yellow panache in his black fedora.
“Jack, you’re a handsome son of a bitch.” He smiled while admiring himself, permanent junk at the border where teeth and pink gums meet. He rubbed his wrist; it was achy but healed. He walked as straight as his spine would allow to breakfast. The nurse pouring the water greeted him cordially:
“Good morning, Jack! How did you sleep?”
“Beautifully, Linda, just beautifully.” He smiled. He was always sure to smile until he felt the creases form. “How did you sleep last night?” he asked, bordering on flirtatiousness.
“Oh not bad, not bad. I’ve got to stop drinking so much coffee, though. It makes me jittery.” She shook the water pitcher mockingly. The ice clinked before it dropped in his cup.
He thought that being nice would be a difficult task, but he found he quite enjoyed it. Because he was tricking them, because his niceness had a motive, that was the enjoyable part, he imagined it was something like what a bank robber feels. He figured they thought he had changed and started to accept the place, but he was only relearning the game. The game he had played as a black engineer in the sixties, the game he thought he was entitled to leave behind once he got old and decrepit. Just when he thought there was nothing more to learn about life, he learned the game was never really over.
The minute and a half grits and powdered eggs were delicious. He politely asked the nurse for seconds, and then thirds. It was difficult to get residents to eat even the small portions served to them, so she obliged, happy at his heaping appetite. She did not think of the reason for it, or his curiously handsome dress, or his especially friendly demeanor. Though they watched him closely in the weeks after his first effort, they were quickly convinced of his newfound attitude and went back to focusing on other residents with more obvious needs: the squeaky wheel policy.
He sat down for cards with the fellas after breakfast. Bull Shit was the game, and Jack had perfected it. The goal was to make the other players believe that you had cards you didn’t as you placed them face down in numerical order. If a player called “Bull Shit” and you were lying about your cards then you had to take the whole pile. When you had no more cards you were the winner. His lies were as good as his truths. He had control of the game now; he bluffed every day and no one suspected incongruity. Nobody really cared for him here, not even Theresa. So it was with special relish that he lied to her. He knew it was bitter, he knew it was petty, but he had nothing else and he knew that too.
When he was finished handing Chris and the others their asses he meandered out to the garden, a little sliver off the side of the main building with a few sprouting azaleas and blooming bulbs of various colors. Disconnected snapdragons lay on the ledge. Chuck strikes again. There was a two-foot retaining wall that intersected with a larger concrete block wall. His eyes narrowed, his lips curled up; no one was in the garden.
He took his hands out of the pockets of his worn-out jeans, grabbed a beat-up round metal barstool, and walked over to the little wall. He put the stool into the greenery behind it and blew into his palms; it was a sunny morning but chill. Very slowly, and very cautiously, he raised one black dress shoe to the top of the bricks, then the other; he had double knotted his laces tightly this morning. He followed the advice of an old baseball coach and moved quickly but did not hurry. He picked up the narrow stool and set it in front of him so that it touched the taller wall. With the help of the barstool, he had his chest and arms over the top of the cement block wall, and with a little hop he was straddling the bricks on top of it.
Staring down, he saw the shadowed forms of the oak leaves on the toes of his over shined shoes. There was a cool breeze at this level that brought the scents of early spring: wet cement paths, the blooms of apple trees, and day-old cut grass. The ground was lower on this side of the wall—an unexpected hitch. As he contemplated this, Mother Theresa happened to stroll out to the patio arm in arm with sweater-laden Chuck. She inhaled sharply, ran to the wall and said,
“Jack, stop! Stay where you are, don’t move!” He knew what he had to do, because this was his last chance to see his daughter, and he was determined not to screw it up. “Help! I need help!” The head nurse ran outside just in time for Jack O’ Holloran to drop out of sight.
A couple of squirrels darted away as the newcomer snapped fallen leaves. He heard the crack in his ribs and felt the pain from the fall but he could only smile.
“I made it,” he said.
On the other side, people were screaming directions at each other, and footsteps were hurrying to the nearest exit, but Jack couldn’t hear it. His jeans were moist with dew, but he felt warm. He didn’t want to move; the spaces of light between the branches of bright green leaves caught his full attention, alternately waving and winking at him. In the gaps he saw forms of memories playing, indistinguishable at first but clear after a moment. He and Jess, a piano recital, a speech club debate, going shoe shopping for prom. The light overtook him as he bought them Hot Dog on a Stick at the beach, dipped the dog in mustard and tapped it to her nose. She wiped it off, smiling, and walked away from him toward the sand, corndog in hand, as she looked over her shoulder. Light from between the leaves bleaching the memory in his mind, she called to him.
“Come on, Dad, it’s okay, follow me.” She was almost to the sea now. He stepped in her bare feet prints as she waited for him at the shore with her hand extended, corndogless.
The gang of nurses rounded the building and found him in a heap in the shadow of the oak tree, lying unnaturally but not making a sound, fedora crunched under his head, eyes quarter moons in the atmosphere of his face. Jack had already taken the hand of his daughter as she led him over the sea. The nurses were afraid to move him as they waited for the ambulance, but the closer it got the further away Jack was. By the time the sirens were audible, all he felt was her hand, and all he saw was blue misty light.
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