FICTION


 

Another Beating Heart by William Cass

 
 

Roger and his longtime partner, Jimena, moved into the tiny house next door shortly before I retired.  I’d heard it was the smallest detached home in that gentrified San Diego neighborhood, and it stood out there like a beat-up golf cart on a lot of upscale cars.  Jimena told me they’d had to leave the cabin they’d rented for years on a mountain in Sequoia because of Roger’s worsening breathing problems at that altitude.  They were both in their mid-seventies, and she said they’d lived for years mostly off his Medi-Cal disability benefits and what was left of the inheritance from his mother’s death.  Almost all of the latter was gone except that house, and the modest monthly rental check they got from it went away, too, once they moved in.  When he was younger, Roger had worked off and on as a mechanic, but got paid cash under the table and never contributed into Social Security, so they only had hers to augment things. 

            I didn’t know either of them well, but they came out to sit on the top of their front steps and smoke a dozen or so times a day, and we occasionally visited then.  When we did, Jimena did almost all of the talking.  Roger had suffered several small strokes before the move; one side of his face drooped and it was difficult for him to speak, but I never got the impression he had much to say anyway.  He had long, gray hair he kept in a thin braid, a beard of similar length, a bandana tied around his head, and large, rimless glasses.  He was almost always dressed in sweat pants, a Harley T-shirt, and black socks.  She dressed the same and was as short and squat as he was tall and thin.  They were generally sprinkled with cat hair from their tabby that seemed permanently perched behind their screen door.  Whenever I walked by and they weren’t smoking outside, I could see Roger lying on the couch in the living room, no lights on, the television tuned to a station that exclusively played reruns of old shows from the 60s and 70s non-stop, morning and night.  I rarely saw Jimena inside, so I’m not sure how she occupied herself in there.  The lower portion of their old PT Cruiser was rusted out from winters on the mountain and rarely moved from in front of their house.

            Roger went into the hospital for the first time in August, about two months after the move.  I was still working at the time, and it happened during the day while I was at the clinic where I had my office.  Jimena was on their front step smoking when I got home; she told me he’d fallen trying to get into the tub.  She said he’d chipped a bone in his wrist and badly dislocated a shoulder, so was being transferred to a nursing facility in National City for rehab and daily occupational and physical therapy.  I would describe her tone describing those things as more annoyed than overly concerned.  A couple of weeks passed before a portable ramp spanning their front steps appeared and Roger was back lying on the couch in front of the television with a walker by his side.

            His next admittance came in the middle of the night in early October when I awoke to the sound of a screaming siren stopping in front of their house.  I pulled on a robe, went outside, and stood on the sidewalk in the glare of the ambulance’s flashing red light until paramedics lowered Roger down the ramp on a gurney and into its open back doors.  Jimena followed and climbed inside with him.  Before the doors closed, she fixed me with an exasperated glare and told me he’d fallen again and broken his hip.  Roger went from the hospital to another longer stint in the nursing facility, and when he came home afterwards, a wheelchair had joined the walker on the side of their couch.

            A couple of weeks later, right after I’d retired, I went outside early one morning to pick up the newspaper and saw Roger sitting in his wheelchair on their front step.  He was holding a lit cigarette in one hand and was stroking the cat in his lap with the other. 

            I said, “Welcome home.”

            He gave me a crooked grunt, but didn’t look my way.  He was in his usual garb, but wore no bandana on his head.  His glasses were cockeyed on his nose.

            “Jimena still sleeping?”

            “Gone,” he said.

            I felt my eyebrows knit.  I looked at the empty space along the curb where their car usually sat.

            “Where’d she go?”

            He shrugged.  “Don’t know.  Left.”

            “But, she’s coming back, right?”

            He shook his head.  “Got too hard.”

            I swallowed and watched him smoke.  It was chilly, but he wore only his T-shirt, sweats, and socks.  The skin on his arms was so thin and sallow that the tattoos covering them all blended together. 

            I let another moment pass before I asked, “You have some other family or friends that can help you out?”

            He looked at me for the first time and shook his head again.  He said, “Nope.”  A little drool had crawled out of the bad side of his mouth.

            “Well,” I said.  “Let me know if I can do something.” 

            A wave of regret spread through me as the words left my mouth; it wasn’t what I had in mind to begin retirement.  Roger made another grunt and took a long drag on his cigarette.  He looked away again.  The cat made a motion with its mouth as if to meow, but no sound came from it. 

            “Hang in there,” I said, and went back inside.

            One of the things I looked forward to when I retired was spending more time on my woodworking, and I tried my best for most of that morning to concentrate on the birdhouse I’d begun building in the garage.  But Roger and his circumstances kept invading my thoughts, so around eleven, I finally wrote my phone number on a scrap of paper and went next door.  When I knocked, I could see him through the screen lying propped up on two pillows on the couch, an old blanket over him and the cat curled up on his chest. 

            “Hey,” I said.  “Wanted to give you my phone number in case you need it.”

            Roger looked over at me and said, “Okay.  Door’s open.”   

            I let myself inside.  An odor of cat and urine wafted in the cramped room.  A bedside commode stood at the foot of the couch with a package of adult diapers on the lid, and there was a tray table littered with pill containers, a cordless phone, and a plastic bottle of water next to the wheelchair and walker at his side.  He watched me set the scrap of paper on the seat of the wheelchair, then returned his attention to the old western show playing on the television.

            I asked, “You need anything?”

            He shook his head.

            “Groceries?”

            “No.”

            “Bills to pay?”

            He shook his head again. 

            I looked at the television myself for a minute, then asked, “Have you thought about hiring a caretaker to help you out?”

            “Can’t afford it.”

            “You must have a little savings.”

            He shrugged.  “Couple hundred bucks.”

            I stood looking down at him, blinking.  His eyes hadn’t moved from the television.

            “You have a number where I might try to track Jimena down?”

            “Nope.”

            “No idea where she may have gone?”

            “None.”

            “I’ll bet she’ll be back soon.”

            “No,” he said.  He looked at me again.  “She won’t.”

            I watched him turn back to the television.  He seemed to be staring at it more than watching the show.  Another long moment passed before I said, “Well, call me if you need something.”

            He nodded.  I walked to the door and let myself out.

 

It didn’t take long for the next chapter to begin because the sound of my ringing phone woke me two nights later and it was Roger’s garbled voice on the other end.  I couldn’t understand what he was saying with his television going, so I dressed quickly and went over.  He was lying on his side on the floor next to the couch still clutching the cordless phone.  Blood covered his face and his nose was twisted at an odd angle.  His glasses were upside down near the hand with the phone, and he held his side with the other, grimacing.

            “God, Roger,” I said.  “What happened?”

            He gave a long moan, then blurted, “My gut.”

            I took the phone from him and called 911.

            I followed the ambulance to the hospital in my own car.  Perhaps an hour passed before a doctor came out to the ER waiting room and told me they’d cleaned Roger up and re-set his nose, but that he was being prepped for gall bladder removal surgery.  The doctor told me it had to come out right away and that they were worried it may have already gone sceptic.  He asked me how long Roger had been in pain, and I said I didn’t know.     

 

I waited until I was told the surgery had been successful and that Roger was in recovery before heading home.  The sky was just lightening towards dawn and I could hear a few birds tittering as I got back into bed.  I was exhausted, but didn’t go to sleep right away.  I thought about the empty house next door, about Roger’s future, and about my own.  I hadn’t considered it until then, but I realized that I wasn’t much more than a decade younger than him.  My own wife had left me a half-dozen years before, so we had that in common, too.

 

I stopped at the nursing station on Roger’s hospital floor before visiting him the next afternoon.  The charge nurse told me he’d mostly been sleeping, but seemed to be recovering slowly.  She asked if he had dentures, and I said not that I was aware of.  She told me they were concerned about his ability to swallow and had ordered a speech therapy evaluation.  She also said they’d determined that he had a partially collapsed lung, so was on a little oxygen. 

            He was asleep on his back when I went into his room.  Taped gauze straddled his nose and there were black-and-blue bruises under each eye.  A nasal cannular fitted into his nostrils led to an oxygenator on the wall behind the bed that made a soft hiss.  An IV drip suspended from a pole disappeared under his covers along with other wires and probes hooked up to a monitor on another pole whose screen displayed alternating vital signs.  I pulled a chair over, sat down by his side, and watched him sleep.

            Twenty minutes or so later, Roger suddenly opened his eyes, frowned, then looked at me, and said, “Feed my cat.”

            “All right.”     

            “Half can.  Morning and night.”

            I nodded.

            “And bring my glasses.”

            “I will,” I said.  “So, how do feel?”

            But his eyes had closed again, and his quiet snores immediately resumed.  I waited another half-hour and then went home.

 

I took care of the cat and brought his glasses when I went to visit early the following afternoon.  I stopped again first at the nursing station for an update on his status.  The same charge nurse said that he’d been awake more often since the previous day.  He’d had one physical therapy session that morning, but could barely stand with a walker and guide belt assistance. They were very concerned about his overall strength because he struggled to even reposition himself in bed.  They’d taken his height and weight, and he was well over six feet tall, but weighed only one hundred and forty pounds.  She also said that the speech therapist had completed her evaluation, felt there were significant swallowing issues, and had put him on a soft diet, but Roger had refused almost any food except a little oatmeal.  The nurse asked me to see if I could get him to eat more.

            Roger was awake when I came into the room, the back of the bed inclined to an almost sitting position, a narrow table positioned across his lap with a tray of food on it.  He was looking at the television mounted on the wall across from the foot of his bed that was tuned to the same channel he watched at home.          

“Hey,” I said.

            He glanced at me, then back at the television, and said, “Got my glasses?”

            I walked over and handed them to him.  He settled them gently on the bridge of he gauze-covered nose.  Without looking my way, he asked, “Cat fed?”

            “Yeah.”  I waited a moment, then added, “But the nurse tells me you’re hardly eating.”

            He blew out a grunt.  “Tastes like shit.”

            “Well, you’ve got to eat.”  I took the lid off the plate in front of him.  It contained some sort of pureed meat, mashed potatoes, and stewed tomatoes.  There were also small containers of red jello, cottage cheese, pudding, and a plastic cup of thickened water that held a straw stiff.  I said, “You want to get out of this place, you have to get stronger.  Can’t do that if you don’t eat.”

            He blurted another grunt, but his head cocked slightly and I saw his eyes narrow behind his glasses.  I pulled a chair over next to him, sat down, and spooned up a bit of the jello.  “Here,” I said.  “I’ll help you try a little.”  I reached the spoon over and held it in front of his chin.  His eyes never left the television, but after a moment, he opened his mouth and let me feed him the jello.  It was then that I could see he had no teeth.  I watched him make a chewing motion and swallow.  He let me do the same thing twice more, and I looked at the television with him in between bites.

            I tried some of the cottage cheese next, but to distract him as I moved the spoon his way, I said, “I used to watch this show when I was a kid.”

            Before he opened his mouth, he said, “Me, too.”

            That started us into a sort of slow rhythm.  I’d make some comment about the television show, the weather, his cat, our neighborhood.  He’d grunt or make a short reply, then allow me to spoon something into his mouth or tilt the straw with the thickened water his way.  He’d finished most of the jello and cottage cheese, a few bites of mashed potatoes, and half the water before holding up his hand when I extended the spoon his way, closing his lips tightly, and shaking his head.

            The charge nurse came into the room then, looked at the tray, and clapped her hands.  “Good for you, Roger!” she exclaimed.  “Keep eating like that and you’ll be doing push-ups soon.”  She put her hand on my shoulder and squeezed it.

 

A kind of routine began after that.  I came to the hospital around that same time each afternoon to feed Roger; the charge nurse thought that if they could continue getting a little oatmeal into him for breakfast and dinner, my help with the midday meal would be most beneficial.  I had a severe allergy to cats, but kept feeding his, too.  I’d found a case of cat food in his kitchen and brought it to my house.  To minimize my exposure to the cat, I filled new bowls with food and water at home before going next door where I’d quickly replace the empty ones just inside the front door where I’d moved them.  Roger had told me where the hide-a-key was under the front mat, so I used that to keep the place locked.  At the end of the week, I looked up on the internet how to change a kitty litter box, and took care of that, too.

            The bruising under Roger’ eyes gradually reduced, as did his need for oxygen.  The recovery from the surgery stayed pretty steady, and if he missed smoking, he never mentioned it.  But his overall strength remained a big concern.  One afternoon when I arrived, the physical therapist was trying to get to him to his feet at the bedside by lifting him with the guide belt around his waist while he gripped the walker, but Roger couldn’t remain upright for more than a handful of seconds before collapsing back onto the mattress.  Teetering there on the walker, his ankles were exposed beneath the hospital gown, and I could see that they were not much thicker than his wrists.  I shook my head listening to him groan against his labored breathing as the physical therapist lifted him under the legs and shoulders like a newborn to reposition him back into bed.

            After a week, he was transferred again to the nursing facility in National City, Courtyard Manor, for rehab.  He was scheduled there for twice daily physical therapy, as well as speech therapy to continue work on his swallowing issues.  By that time, he was off the oxygen, almost all the bruising was gone from his face, and the gauze had been removed from his nose.  I drove over behind the medical transport and helped the social worker there with the admission since Roger had no one else to do that; she said Medi-Cal had approved a stay of up to three weeks providing he made sufficient progress with his therapy sessions.

            I kept up my assistance with the cat at home and continued my midday feeding visits with Roger at Courtyard Manor.  The place wasn’t much to look at from the outside, but I was impressed with the quality of care, expertise, and attentiveness there.  I’d spent most of my career as a case manager for a community medical group, so was well aware of how those elements could vary, as well as the hoops that had to be jumped through regarding regulations, keeping beds filled, and the like.  At first, Roger had his room to himself, but then had a series of roommates who stayed for a few days each and generally remained behind a curtain pulled between their beds.  He was on the far side of the room where a sliding glass door looked out on an interior courtyard filled with potted plants and umbrella tables where I never saw anyone sit.

            Each day as I was leaving, I tracked down the physical and speech therapists for an update on how Roger had been doing.  While his swallowing showed minor improvements, he demonstrated no progress whatsoever with his strength.  In fact, as time went on, the physical therapist told me that Roger simply refused to even try to get out of bed with him.  Although Roger continued to grudgingly allow me to feed him, my admonishments with him about needing to make an effort with the physical therapist went unheeded. 

            I’d begun bringing Roger his mail, as well as his checkbook from the drawer where he’d told me he kept it along with a pen, stamps, and envelopes, so he could pay his few bills.  Each day when I checked his mailbox, I hoped to find a letter from Jimena, but never did.  There was no answering machine in his house, and he didn’t own a cell phone or computer, so no messages were possible otherwise. With the passing days, I fought away a feeling of pending doom and tried to think of alternatives for him down the line.

            One afternoon while I was feeding him, the show on the television had a setting in foothills I thought might be similar to those near Sequoia.  I asked Roger if they looked familiar.

            He shrugged and said, “Guess so.”

            “So, was the mountain pretty?”

            “God’s country.”

            I felt my eyes widen.  “So, what’d you do up there?”

            “Fished.  Hunted.  Rode motorcycles, ATVs, snowmobiles.  Had to fire my shotgun over a bear’s head once when it came in our yard.”

            It was the longest I’d ever heard him speak at one time.  The idea of him having a life filled with things other than lying on the couch watching television and smoking had never occurred to me.

            “So, you liked it?” I said.

            He nodded.  “And Jimena loved it,” he said.  His eyes staring at the television took on the same look they’d had when I brought over my telephone number.  After a moment, he said again, “She loved it.” 

 

As the end of the three-week approval period approached, the social worker asked me to attend a care team meeting regarding Roger.  This consisted of her, me, and the facility’s administrator, a taciturn man who avoided eye contact with me.  I’d told the social worker about my professional background, which she’d also clearly shared with the administrator because she got right to the point at our meeting and used medical terms without explanation.  She said they’d determined that Roger had “plateaued” with his physical therapy, which meant that there had been no improvement in that area nor indication of potential for any in the future.  Because of that, she said, his discharge was being scheduled for the following Saturday.  I told them that would be impossible, that he was unable to care for himself at home, had no one there to assist him, and no financial means to hire anyone to do so.  I said I knew that state guidelines mandated that they hold a minimum number of long term beds for Medi-Cal-only patients and that I wanted them to try to find one for Roger.  The social worker exchanged a quick glance with the administrator when I said that; I knew those regulations were basically unknown to the general public and were ones he tried to skirt whenever possible because Medi-Cal reimbursement rates were so much lower than other insurance coverages.  He also knew that once placed on an extended Medi-Cal stay, it was virtually impossible to remove a patient from a facility.  The administrator cleared his throat, made a short nod to the social worker, and she told me they’d discuss my request.  Her tone was sharp and clipped, and I suspected that they’d talked about the possibility beforehand and had hoped it wouldn’t be raised.

            But when I came to feed Roger the next day, he’d been moved to a new room at the back of the facility; the woman at the front desk said the social worker asked her to tell me it was a Medi-Cal-only bed that had just come open and that Roger had been placed there on a trial basis.  I nodded and asked her to thank the social worker and administrator for me.

            Roger’s new room wasn’t as nice as his previous one, but it was clean and functional.  His bed was on the near side this time, and a man lay in the other with the curtain open between them.  I figured him to be about Roger’s age, but he was much shorter with only a stubble of gray hair against his dark skin.  He was dressed in his own pajamas with an afghan over his feet, and other personal items around him indicated that he’d been there for a while. 

            He looked at me, raised his hand in greeting, and said, “I’m Raul.”

            “Carl.  Pleased to meet you.”

            He nodded.  The little televisions mounted and angled high on the walls next to their beds were both tuned to the same channel Roger always watched.

            Raul kept his gaze on me.  “He said you’d be coming, Carl.  Didn’t eat nothing off his tray.”

            “Yeah, well, that’s about par for the course.”

            The chair I took from next to the wardrobe had a rip in the seat, and the faded wallpaper behind it was peeling a little.  Raul turned back to his television and I settled down next to Roger to begin our regular midday meal choreography.  The show the two of them were watching was a comedy, and every now and then one of them would snort a laugh at it. 

            When Roger made the stop sign with his hand and shook his head, I moved the tray sideways on the table across his lap to clear a space and set a small paper bag I’d brought on it.  Raul turned and watched as I opened the bag and took a portable CD player out of it with earbuds dangling from a long cord.

            “Found this on the counter back by your kitty litter box,” I told Roger.  “Thought you might want to listen to it sometimes.  It already had a CD in it.”

            Roger looked down at the device and a little crooked smile creased his lips.  He said, “The Stones.”

            “Hey,” Raul said.  “I like the Rolling Stones.  That’s real.”

            Roger glanced at him, nodded, and said, “Damn straight.”

            “Well, there you are then,” I said and stood up.  I dropped the paper bag in his trash can.  “So, Roger, see you tomorrow.  Raul, you take care, too.”

            Raul raised his hand in the same manner as when I’d entered, and Roger made one of his grunts as I left.

When I entered their room the next afternoon, Raul was in his wheelchair sitting along Roger’s bedside.  Roger had the CD player going on the lap table in front of him, and they each held an earbud from it to an ear.  They were both nodding to the beat of whatever song they were listening to.  Raul grinned at me and gave me a thumb’s up.  Roger didn’t look my way, but began tapping his fingertips on the tabletop in the same rhythm as his nods.

            A couple of days later, I found Raul in his wheelchair at the side of Roger’s bed again, but turned perpendicular to it so he could reach across Roger’s lap table.  They were playing cards on it. 

            “Gin rummy,” Raul told me.  “Kicking his ass.”

            Roger made a sound that was somewhere between a grunt and a laugh. 

            It became rare that I didn’t find them doing something together when I arrived: listening to the CD, playing cards or dominoes, working on one of Raul’s hundred-piece jigsaw puzzles, watching the same show on television.  I even found them one time using crayons and the coloring book Raul kept at his bedside; Raul had the book open across his thighs in the wheelchair and had torn out a page for Roger to use on his lap table with the crayons scattered across it for both of them.  As those interactions increased, so did Roger’s appetite, or at least the amount he’d allow me to feed him.

 

A week or so before Christmas, Roger and Raul were each asleep when I arrived and the curtain was pulled between them as far as the end of their beds, probably left that way by a CNA after changing one of their diapers.  Both had trays of food on their lap tables.  Roger’s television was on, but Raul’s wasn’t.  I took the chair over to Roger’s bedside, muted the volume on his television, and began sorting through items on his tray looking for those that I might be able to coax him to eat.  As I did, a big, heavyset man about thirty-years-old shuffled into the room.  He wore an open, zippered sweatshirt over a T-shirt that advertised a trucking company, jeans with a cell phone in the back pocket, and work boots.  He frowned a little crossing the room and didn’t glance my way when I nodded to him.  I watched him disappear behind the curtain on Raul’s side and heard the bed covers there being rustled. 

            “Hey,” he said.  His voice was a low growl.  “Uncle Raul, it’s me, Jeremy.  Your sister Irma’s kid.”

            Raul didn’t answer, but must have awoken because Jeremy continued, “You remember Irma.  She died three years ago, and I promised her I’d stop and see you when I was down this way.  Just made a delivery in El Cajon and I’m about to head back to L.A., so thought I’d come by.  How the hell are you, man?”

            There was a long pause before Raul said, “Who are you?”

            “Your sister Irma’s kid.  Don’t you remember getting together for Christmas, Cinco de Mayo, birthdays, Sunday dinners?  With your older sister, Pricilla, too, and her son, Anthony.  We had some good times then, didn’t we?

            “You’re Jeremy.”

            “That’s it, that’s right.  And I live with Anthony now up in L.A.  Pricilla’s dead, too.  Almost all that generation is gone now…you’re the only one still ticking, Uncle Raul.  But Anthony and me work for the same company now, driving trucks.  He’s out in Riverside on a run, and I told him I’d call him when I got here, put him on speaker so he could say hi.”

            I heard the beeps of Jeremy’s cell phone as he tapped in the number, then ringing over the speaker, followed by another young man’s voice saying, “Jeremy?”

            “Yeah, man.  I’m here with Uncle Raul.  He’s right here, lying in bed.  I’ll hand him the phone, so you can talk to him.”  There was a pause, then Jeremy said, “That’s it, Uncle Raul, just hold it up close to your mouth like that and talk normal.  He’ll hear you.”

            “Hey, Uncle Raul,” Anthony’s voice said.  “How’s it going?  They treating you right there?  You okay?”

            There was no reply until Jeremy said, “Yeah, he looks all right, man.  Just skin-and-bones, though.  You’d hardly recognize him.”

            “That right, Uncle Raul?” Anthony’s voice said.  “You lose weight?  Wish I could do that.”  The voice on the phone laughed, and so did Jeremy’s.

            Raul said, “So, you’re Anthony.  Pricilla’s boy.”

            “That’s it, Uncle Raul.  Now you’re cooking with gas.”

            The two young men laughed again.  Then Jeremy said, “Hey, Uncle Raul, Anthony and me were swapping old stories about you before I started driving down here this morning.  You know, things our moms told us towards the end while they were both still alive.  There’s one we wanted to ask you about that’s kind of an inspiration to us.”

            “You got that right,” Anthony’s voice said.  Both of theirs had taken on an edge of excitement and anticipation.

            “So,” Jeremy said.  “Our moms said you robbed half-a-dozen banks when you were young.  About our age.  Got away with them all.  That true?”

            Another long pause followed.  Finally, Raul said, “Not exactly.”

            “How so, Uncle Raul?” Anthony’s voice asked.

            “Well,” he said quietly, “because I robbed one of them twice.”

            A burst of laughter escaped both young men.  I could hear Anthony hooting on the other end of the line, then he shouted, “You the man, Uncle Raul!”

            Jeremy joined in.  “You’re like our hero, Uncle Raul!”

            I found myself shaking my head.  I looked at Roger, who hadn’t woken up.  A little bubble of saliva had formed at the bad corner of his lips.

            “I’m tired,” Raul said.  “Need to sleep.”

            “That’s fine, Uncle Raul,” Anthony’s voice replied.  “You rest up.  We’ll let you go.”

            “Yeah,” Jeremy said.  “One of us will be down this way soon.  We’ll stop and see you again.”

            Raul said, “I’m old.”  It came out in almost a whisper

            “You stay good, Uncle Raul,” Anthony’s voice answered.

            “Talk to you later, man,” Jeremy told him.  “Call you when I get close to L.A.”

            I heard the phone disconnect and slide back into the pocket of Jeremy’s jeans.  “Okay, then, Uncle Raul,” he said.  “Looks like you’re already asleep, so I’ll get going.  But, you eat some of that food when you wake up.”  I heard him pat the bed covers.  “We’ll talk again soon.”

            Jeremy didn’t glance my way when he came back around the edge of the curtain.  He lumbered out the door, and I listened to his work boots go off down the hallway.  Then it was quiet, except for the soft, alternating snores from both sides of the curtain.

 

When I went to dump the kitty litter box in the trash that Saturday, a moving truck was parked in the alley behind Roger’s house.  Workers were carrying furniture up the stairs to the apartment above the garage that belonged to the neighbors on the other side of Roger.  An older woman descended the stairs and walked to the open passenger seat door of a car that stood between Roger’s trash cans and the moving truck.  As I replaced the lid on the trash can, she removed a box of kitchen utensils from the car seat, and we looked at each other.

            “Hello,” I said.  “You moving in upstairs?”

            “That’s right.”  She nodded at Roger’s house.  “You my new neighbor?”

            “No, I live in the next place down.  This one belongs to a man named Roger.  Just helping him out while he’s in a nursing home.”

            She nodded again and smiled.  I thought she was around my age.  She was dressed in khakis, a blue fleece pullover, and sneakers.  Her salt-and-pepper hair came just to her shoulders.  Her eyes were the same color as the pullover and hooded at the outside edges, kind.  I did my best to return the smile.

            She said, “My name is Helen.”

            “Carl.”

            I set the kitty litter box on top of the trash can and extended a hand.  She juggled the box, did the same, and we shook.

            I asked, “Where you coming from?”

            “Bay Area.  Moved down here to be closer to my daughter and her family.”  She paused, then said, “After my husband died.”

            I nodded.

            “You?”

            I shrugged.  “Been living here a long time.  Just retired.”

            “On your own, too?”

            I nodded again.  The box shifted, and she clutched it to her chest with both hands.  “Well,” she said.  “I better get this upstairs before I drop this.”

            “Can I give you a hand?”

            “No need.  This is my last box from the car.  The movers will get the rest.  Nice to meet you, Carl.”

            “You, too.”

            She smiled again.  I watched her close her car door with her hip, ascend the stairs, and disappear inside her new apartment.

 

I brought Christmas gifts for Roger and Raul when I went to Courtyard Manor that next afternoon.  Technically, the CD compilation I’d bought of classic rock songs was for Roger, and the new coloring book and crayons were for Raul, but they were gifts they could share.  When I came into the room, the curtain was pulled between their beds again.  I opened it and found Raul’s bed stripped and his wheelchair gone.

            I looked at Roger and asked, “Where’s Raul?”

            He shrugged.  “Started screaming during the night, then there was all sorts of fuss, then he was gone.”

            I felt myself frowning as I stared at the empty blue mattress that looked stark in the sunlight streaming through the sliding glass door.  Raul’s afghan was gone, too, but the pictures he’d colored and tacked to the little bulletin board on the wall beside the bed were still hanging there.

            “Well,” I said, “hope he’s back soon.”  I held up the packages I’d wrapped.  “Brought you both Christmas gifts, but that’s still a few days away.  Guess we could wait for Raul to open them.”

            Roger nodded and said, “Let’s wait.”

 

I didn’t bother with Christmas decorations at home.  I hadn’t put any up since my wife had left.  But with retirement and more time on my hands, the holiday season seemed to carry a little more ache than normal.  I suppose Roger and Raul had something to do with that, too.  I usually took a long walk each morning after breakfast, but began taking one in the evenings, too, and found myself coming back by way of the alley.  I always looked up at the garage apartment when I passed by.  What I was hoping for as I did, I wasn’t sure.  I saw a tiny Christmas tree appear there one night adorned in twinkling white lights.  And on another, there was a poinsettia perched on the landing under the porch light, a red spray of leaves in a pot wrapped in gold foil.  My heart clenched a little seeing both those things.  Of course, I also looked for Helen when I went by, but never saw her. 

 

Raul’s bed remained empty.  I waited until I was heading into Courtyard Manor to feed Roger on Christmas Eve to stop in the social worker’s office and ask about him.

            When I did, she stared back at me and didn’t respond for a long moment.  Finally, she said, “You know I can’t share that sort of information.”

            “Can you just tell me if he’s coming back at some point?”

            She paused again, then shook her head.  “He’s not, no.  He’s not coming back anywhere, I’m afraid.”

            Our eyes held, and I saw the sadness in hers.  I knew her job wasn’t for everyone, that it took a certain kind of person to do it, a special one.  I nodded, wished her a good holiday, and left.  Outside her office, I sat down hard on the edge of a chair and thought: here today, gone tomorrow.  A life full of events and moments, noteworthy and mundane: finished, ended.  I wondered how Raul’s nephews would discover his passing.  I was vaguely aware of two staff members hanging a wreath over the aquarium across the room as a kind of numbness filled me.

            I stopped in the open doorway of Roger’s room and looked at him sleeping in his bed and at the empty one across from him.  I watched him stir and mumble at whatever he was dreaming about, memories perhaps.  I considered again whether or not to tell him about Raul, but decided against it.  There was no hurry, no real reason to dash hopes.  He’d find out in his own time, I decided, and in his own way.

            When I got home afterwards, I wandered through the rooms in my house that sat so silent they seemed to scream.  My wife’s things still remained where she’d left them: her wristwatch on our bureau, her windbreaker on the peg in the back hall, the book she’d been reading on the end table next to the easy chair she favored in the family room, the snow globe I’d given her for our last anniversary together on the fireplace mantle.  I shook that when I came upon it and watched the flakes tumble inside until they’d all settled and it stayed as still as the rest of the house.  My thoughts drifted to all the long days ahead for me and how I’d fill them alone.  As I did, something fell in me, and I grabbed my jacket, left the house, and drove to the grocery store.

            I could barely cook, so I bought a package of cookies from the store’s refrigerator case that came in little squares I could break apart, place in the oven on a sheet, and bake in twenty minutes.  When they were done, I arranged them on a paper plate, stretched plastic wrap over them, and carried them around the corner to the alley.  It was almost four-thirty and the late afternoon’s gloaming had already begun descending towards full darkness.  There were lights on in the windows of Helen’s apartment.  I climbed the stairs two at a time and knocked on her door.

            She opened it slowly, stared blankly at me for several seconds, then smiled.  “Carl,” she said.  “It’s you.” 

            I extended the plate towards her.  “I’m not much of a baker, but thought I’d bring you these.  Sort of a housewarming gift.  Would have made Christmas cookies, but I don’t know how.”

            “Thank you.”  Her smile remained as she took the plate from me.  “My, still warm.  Will you come in and have one with me?”

            “Well.”  I shrugged.  “All right.”

            She stepped back and I passed by her into a small living room.  She closed the door behind her and set the plate on a coffee table in front of a brown leather couch.  A stand-up lamp lit one corner of it, and I saw the twinkling Christmas tree I’d noticed before on a table in the front window.

            “Please, sit down.”  Helen pointed to the couch.  “I just made a pot of tea.  Can I pour you some, too?”

            “That’d be great.”

            She went into the kitchen, and I sat on the corner of the couch next to the lamp.  The place was warm.  I could hear Christmas music playing softly in the kitchen and Helen shuffling about in there.  In a moment, she was back with two steaming mugs.  She handed me one and sat on the other end of the couch with the other.  We both sipped.  It was quiet afterwards with just the murmur of music.

            “So,” I said finally.  “How do you like living here so far?”

            “It’s nice.”  She nodded.  “I get over to see my daughter and her family pretty often, but they’re awfully busy with their own lives.  I’m adjusting.”

            “That’s good.”

            She took another sip of tea, then said, “To be honest, it gets a little lonesome sometimes.”

            I took a turn nodding.

            “Do you get lonesome sometimes, Carl?”

            I paused, then said, “Sure.  Sure, I do.”

            She gave a tiny chuckle.  “I’m actually thinking of getting a cat.  You know, for a little companionship.” 

            “A cat.”

            “Yes, I’ve never had a pet.”

            I nodded some more. “Well,” I said, “I know where you might be able to get one.  Someone might be ready to give his away.”

            “That right?”

            “Maybe.”  A flush had spread up through me.  “At least for a while.  I’ll ask him and see.”

            “I appreciate that.”  She glanced at me, then quickly away.  “I don’t know, but the idea of having another being around is comforting somehow.  Another being with a beating heart, just nearby, breathing together.  I suppose that sounds silly.”

            “No,” I said.  “It doesn’t sound silly at all.”

 

Capture_william_cass.jpg

William Cass has had a little over 150 short stories accepted for publication in a variety of literary magazines such as december, Briar Cliff Review, and The Boiler. His children's book, Sam, is scheduled for release by Upper Hand Press in April, 2020. Recently, he was a finalist in short fiction and novella competitions at Glimmer Train and Black Hill Press, received a Pushcart nomination, and won writing contests at Terrain.org and The Examined Life Journal. He lives in San Diego, California.

Get to know William by checking out our exclusive interview with him on the Orson’s Publishing blog.