by William Cass
In his pajamas and robe, Ben signed the overnight nurse’s notes a little before 6am when her shift with his son, Sam, ended. Her name was Denise, and she’d been with them on weeknights for several years, the longest they’d had the same nurse since Ben’s wife had left nearly two decades before. That had coincided with when Sam wasn’t yet two and they were preparing to bring him home from the hospital for severely disabled and medically fragile children after a thirteen-month admittance.
He handed Denise back her notes and asked, “So, his night go okay?”
“Uneventful,” she told him. “A wet diaper, regular repositioning and meds, a few suctions, no oxygen needs, and a very short seizure. Easy.”
Ben nodded and walked her to the front door. After he opened it and thanked her, he picked up the newspaper from the front step and watched her go through the gate, get in her car, and drive away. A line of late-November sky above the school across the street was just beginning to lighten, cream-colored against charcoal. His house sat on the corner and there was no traffic on either of the cross streets. In the stillness, he heard the ferry sound its horn a half mile away at the pier as it readied to make its commute across San Diego Bay.
Ben went back into Sam’s room where he lay sleeping on his raised hospital bed. He wiped away spittle from the side of his mouth and the inside of the mister cup that blew moist air across the opening in his trach. He checked the numbers on his sat monitor, which were well within acceptable margins, then the volume in his feed bag and the connection at his G-tube to be sure it was secure. Finally, he kissed Sam’s forehead and turned off the lamp that Denise had been using.
Ben went into the bathroom that joined their bedrooms, used the toilet, brushed his teeth, and looked in the mirror. A tired face stared back at him. He pushed his glasses up on his nose. He still had most of his hair, though it had started to grow grayer after he’d turned sixty a couple of years earlier. He regarded his long face and the salt-and-pepper stubble he’d begun allowing to grow for several days at a time. Sprinklers started in a yard up the street. A bird tittered in the high branches of the birch tree outside.
Ben brought coffee and yoghurt into the living room, sat on the couch just outside Sam’s open bedroom door, and read the newspaper while he ate and dawn slowly spread outside. When the feeding pump beeped to signify that the feed had ended, he put the paper down, took a last sip of coffee, and returned to Sam’s room. Ben turned off the pump, sat monitor, and mister, and gave Sam a water flush before disconnecting the line from his G-tube and doing the same with the mister. A little gurgle came from Sam’s trach, so Ben suctioned that twice, brushed his son’s teeth, and suctioned his mouth. Then he got Sam into his shower chair, bathed him, shaved his face, and combed his unruly shock of sandy-colored hair. Back in his bed, he dressed him in loose sweat pants, socks, and a V-neck T-shirt that left his trach accessible. He still hadn’t awoken, so Ben repositioned him and turned on the two baby monitors that hung on the bedrail. He clipped the receiving one to his belt, set the other next to Sam on the pillow, and returned to the living room.
By then, the street and sidewalk outside the school across the street were full of the shouts and laughter of students and parents coming for the start of the school day. Ben paused at the front window to look out at them with the old, familiar, good feeling rising up in him. He still recognized most of the faces; he’d just retired a few months earlier at the end of the previous school year because Sam’s home nursing hours were reduced when he turned twenty-one and were only adequate to cover overnight shifts.
Ben changed into clothes himself, made another cup of coffee, and brought it out to his workshop in the garage. He pulled the string on the tin-shaded light above his workbench andadjusted the volume on the baby monitor so he could hear Sam’s quiet snores over the classical music radio station he turned on low. All of his woodworking tools were hung precisely on a large pegboard above the workbench, and the birdhouse he’d been building sat in the middle of it. He blew sawdust off the bench, lifted the section he’d been working on last, and began sanding in the cone of soft, yellow light.
Except for checking on and repositioning Sam a few times, Ben stayed steady on the birdhouse until shortly before noon. Then he went back into Sam’s room, gave him anti-seizure and pulmonary meds through his G-tube, and changed his dirty diaper. He put on Sam’s vibrating vest, filled the canister on the nebulizer with albuterol, fitted its cup over his trach, and started both for the mid-day respiratory treatment. While it was going, he ate a sandwich at the kitchen counter watching the slight breeze rustle the tall hedge and orange tree outside.
Afterwards, he got Sam into his wheelchair, put a zippered sweatshirt on him as well as a ball cap that hadn’t changed in size since he was five. He adjusted the slightly flattened back of his son’s head in the rest and wiped his drool off with a bandana tucked into the front of his shirt. Sam had finally woken up, and as always when alert, his tongue lolled out one side of his mouth and his eyes gazed at something in the near distance; in spite of two surgeries over the years, his pupils still wandered a bit to the outside.
“Want to go for a walk?” Ben asked and was startled by the sound of his own voice.
He hung the “go” bag containing the portable sat monitor and suction machine, diapers, and other items over the back of the wheelchair. Then he pushed Sam out through the dining room’s French doors and down the old ramps, out the back gate that separated the house from the garage, and down the sidewalk the few blocks to the library. Ben got the new biography he’d put on reserve at the front desk and was pleased to find his favorite armchair by a side window unoccupied. It was nestled away from other patrons so that if Sam coughed secretions out of his trach, it wasn’t so noticeable or disturbing, and Ben could clean him up and suction him if needed.
Ben tilted Sam back in his chair a little and took off his cap. As he did, Sam started to seize. His legs and arms stiffened and shook, his pupils rolled up, and he began to whimper. Ben held one of his son’s damp hands, put a cheek next to his, and whispered, “Shh, shh, you’ll be all right.”
The seizure lasted less than a minute and hadn’t been particularly hard. When it ended, Ben wiped the foam from around his son’s mouth and reclined the wheelchair further. As always, Sam went into a deep post-dictal sleep. Ben checked his stats; his heart rate was a little high, which was normal after a seizure, and his oxygen level was fine. He smoothed Sam’s hair, settled down in the chair next to him, and began to read.
A few minutes later, a young man walked by them, stopped, and came back, frowning. “Mr. Drummond,” he said. “Is that you?”
Ben frowned himself, but smiled and nodded.
“You don’t remember me, do you?”
Ben frowned some more. “I think so,” he lied. “I think I do.” Then he offered what he usually did in those situations. “Weren’t you a student of mine?”
“Twelve years ago. Fifth grade. So, how’re you doing? I heard you retired.”
“Yes, in June.”
“And is this Sam?”
“It’s him, yes.”
“Boy, has he grown since I saw him last. You used to bring him over to our classroom after school sometimes.”
“When his day nurse got off shift.” Ben nodded. “So, how about you? What are you up to?”
“Navy. Been in five years now. Going out on deployment next week. Just home for a quick visit with my parents before I leave.”
“Good for you,” Ben said, and then paused. “Wish you safe travels.” He was trying hard to remember the young man’s name. Tom, Todd . . . or it might have been Tim.
“Say, Mr. Drummond, I want you to know something. You were the best teacher I ever had. You were firm, but kind. And really fair. You believed in me, us. A lot of the kids who had you feel that way. Just about all of them that I know.”
“Thanks,” Ben said quietly. A heat had blossomed behind his eyes. “Thanks very much.”
“Well, I better go,” the young man said. “Been great seeing you, Mr. Drummond.”
He extended his hand, and Ben shook it. Although he couldn’t remember them either, Ben said, “Say hi to your folks for me.”
The young man nodded. He looked at Sam and seemed unsure what to do next; Ben had seen that many times before. The young man settled on patting Sam’s knee, then gave them both a last grin, and walked off. Ben wiped more drool from Sam’s chin and sat back with the book again, a small smile creasing his lips.It took him some time to refocus his concentration on the book. Sunshine came through the window, crossing his lap and Sam’s.
Around three, Ben pushed Sam back towards the front of the library, selected a couple DVDs of a British mystery series that he liked, and checked those out along with the biography. He slid them all inside Sam’s sweatshirt and pushed him back home where he settled him in, in front of the little television in his room and found cartoons to play that sometimes elicited a happy squawk from him.
Ben prepared Sam’s daily formula in a new bag, gave him another med, and started the slow feed that would continue until the next morning. He changed into exercise gear, rolled his stationary bike from the front hall closet out beside the fireplace,and rode slowly for forty-five minutes watching the school day dismissal from the front window.
Afterwards, he showered, changed back into clothes, opened a bottle of beer, and sipped it while he read more of the biography on the side porch next to the open dining room doors. The sun descended in the sky, the air took on a slight chill, and the murmur of Sam’s cartoons and his occasional cough over the baby monitor were the only sounds. When it became too dark to read, Ben heated a can of soup and ate it with the dregs of his beer standing at the counter again. Outside, the darkness deepened and the streetlamp on the corner lit the tops of the hedge and orange tree.
After dinner, Ben moved Sam onto the living room couch, got his feed restarted, and began one of the mystery DVDs. He sat down up against his son, and put his arm around him; Sam burrowed his head into Ben’s chest like always, nuzzling there. When Sam had been smaller and Ben could still easily maneuver him, they had an identical nightly routine, except that Ben would snuggle him on his lap.
After the second episode ended around eight-thirty, Ben got Sam settled back in bed and began the ritual of procedures that came before the overnight nurse’s arrival: feeding resumed, another respiratory treatment with the vest and nebulizer, suctioning, diaper change, pajamas, teeth brushed, meds measured and administered, mister and sat monitor connected and started, repositioning, blankets tucked in, and the regular three nightly lullabies sung.
Denise let herself in the front door just before ten, locking it behind her. She came into Sam’s room as Ben was adjusting the mister cup, put her things down on the armchair, and asked, “So, how was the day?”
“Good,” Ben told her. “Good day. Nothing special to report.”
“Move his bowels?”
“Yes, so you’re all clear there.”
She smiled. “Seizures?”
“Just one that I saw.”
Ben shook his head and hoped, as he often did, that she wouldn’t be retiring soon herself. She’d told him that her husband had begun growing tired of his many years driving long haul truck, and their own son wasn’t too far away from graduating from college. He liked her gentleness with Sam and appreciated how conscientious she was with all his overnight needs.
Denise reached over and scratched Sam’s head. “All right, then,” she said to him, his eyes gazing past her. “Let’s let your old dad get some sleep.”
Ben thanked her and gave Sam a last kiss. He went into the bathroom, closed the door, reversed his wake-up routine, then changed into his pajamas. Before pulling the last curtain shut in his room and getting into bed, he looked outside up at the night sky where a few stars showed along with a partial moon. He thought about the young man at the library. He thought about the progress he’d made on the birdhouse and the biography he was enjoying. He thought about how Sam’s day had gone and wished the next one and the one after that could go nearly as well. He wasn’t sure if the moon was waxing or waning, but he found something reassuring about it, hopeful and gratifying.
“Yes,” he whispered to himself. “No complaints here. None.”
Ben opened the garage door the following morning to air it after painting sections of the birdhouse. He stepped outside onto his driveway and found Steve, who lived in the tiny one-bedroom house next door, loading a box of pots and pans into the trunk of his car. The trunk’s cavity was already crammed with other stuff: more boxes, framed pictures, clothes on hangers.
Ben walked over next to him and asked, “So, what’s up?”
Steve closed the trunk. “Moving.”
Steve nodded. “Job change. Promotion, actually. Up in Los Angeles.”
“Thanks.” Steve nodded some more, seemed to consider, then said, “Listen, you’ve been a really good neighbor.”
“You, too. Going miss having you next door.”
“Yeah, well, movers came and took everything yesterday.”
“I never even noticed.”
“Didn’t take them long.”
Ben looked at the empty house that fronted the street to the side of his own. “So, what’s going to happen to your place?”
“Owner’s rented it to a woman and her father. I believe they’re moving in this weekend.”
A street sweeper crawled by at the bottom of their two driveways. They watched it make its slow way past them and proceed down the block towards the school and library.
Steve said, “Well, take care.”
“You, too,” Ben told the younger man. “And good luck.”
Ben was at his workbench again that Saturday morning when he heard a car pull into the driveway where Steve’s had been. Its doors opened and closed and a woman’s upbeat voice said, “Here we are.” There was no reply.
Ben listened to the start-and-stop shuffling and scrape of some sort of apparatus on the sidewalk heading towards the little house. A dog’s whine and the scratch of paws against floor mats also came from the car. Once, the woman said, “There you go.” And a couple of moments later, “You’re doing fine. You’re making it.”
The gate in front of the house clicked open. Then Ben heard what sounded like a large truck pull up to the curb there and shudder to a stop. Ben waited until he heard the clacking of the truck’s cargo door ratcheting up before he left the garage, went out his own back gate, and stood holding its top just on the driveway.
The woman juggled keys and opened the front door of the house. She was slender and had brown hair that fell to her shoulders. An old man stood at the foot of the three steps below her leaning on a walker. Ben guessed she was in her mid-forties and the man was at least fifteen years his senior. He was very thin, frail looking, and his arms trembled a little on the walker. He had a long, gray beard and scraggly hair of the same color and length under a blue paisley bandana; he wore baggy sweatpants like Sam’s, slippers, and a T-shirt with a motorcycle emblem stenciled on the back. He had small spectacles that sat crooked on his disoriented face.
The woman descended to the bottom step and said, “Here, take hold of both railings.”
Once he had, she brought his walker up just inside the open doorway, and then returned to the bottom, ducking under his arm and positioning herself behind him. Two big men wearing work gloves pulled out a ramp from the back of the truck, dropped it clattering to the pavement, then disappeared into the cargo space while she helped the old man make his halting way up the steps, following him with both of her hands held like a football receiver waiting for a pass. At one point, he wavered and looked like he might fall, but she steadied him with her hand on the small of his back until she had him up to the top and gripping the walker in the doorway. Ben watched them shuffle inside.
The movers emerged from the back of the truck wrestling a big mattress down the ramp. They’d made it up to the gate with it before the woman came out onto the top of the steps again.
“That goes in the bedroom,” she told them. “A medical supply company is bringing a hospital bed for my dad that will go in the living room.”
Before she went back inside, she glanced over at Ben. He nodded, and she smiled. He raised his hand in greeting, and she returned the gesture.
Ben waited until early the next afternoon to go over and greet his new neighbors. He’d baked a dozen chocolate chip cookies that he’d put on a plate and covered with cellophane. He set them on Sam’s lap and pushed him up to the front of their gate. The woman squatted on their top step watering a potted plant from a pitcher. The door behind her stood open and the sound of a television came from the living room. She set down the pitcher, straightened, regarded Ben and Sam, and gave the same smile as the previous morning.
“Well, hello there,” she said. “Saw you yesterday. Looks like we’re next-door neighbors.”
Ben nodded. “That’s right.” He held out the plate of cookies. “Brought you a little housewarming gift.”
Her smile and eyes brightened. “That’s very nice of you.” She came down the steps and took the plate from him. Up closer, he thought she might be a little past forty-five. Her eyes were very brown and gentle, kind.
Ben said, “I’m afraid I’m not much of a baker.”
“It’s nice of you,” she said again. She looked from him to Sam. “And who’s this?”
“My son, Sam. I’m Ben.”
“Pleased to meet you both. I’m Alice. My father is just inside there. His name is Carl.”
She stepped to the side so that Ben could see into the small living room that was full of light from the open door and windows. The room couldn’t have been more than a dozen feet across. Carl lay inclined on a hospital bed that sat parallel to the far wall and up against it. He appeared to be wearing a similar outfit as the day before without the bandana and was watching the television. His walker was at the side of the bed next to a tray table on which sat a tall plastic glass with a straw in its lid and assorted pill bottles. A collapsible wheelchair was folded against the head of the bed.
“Dad,” Alice called, “these are our new neighbors, Ben and Sam.”
The old man turned his head, his glasses askew, and grunted something that sounded like, “Hey.”
She extended the plate towards the open door. “They brought us cookies.”
He made a similar grunt and turned his attention back to the television.
Alice sighed. “Tired out from the move.”
She shrugged. “Truth is, that’s mostly all he does. Lies there and watches TV.”
A little water had begun dribbling out of the bottom of the pot she’d been watering and meandered down the steps.
“Well, if you need anything,” Ben said.
“Thank you.” She gave her smile again, then leaned down so her face was level with Sam’s across the top of the gate. For a long moment, she remained smiling at him until she said, “Look at those blue eyes . . . he’s handsome. How old?”
“Going on twenty-two.”
She reached over and smoothed his hair. “You have a nice dad, Sam.”
A dog barked somewhere a few houses away, and another answered it inside the house. The yipping there continued.
Alice stood back up and said, “That’s Harley, my dad’s dog. I think I left him in my bedroom with the door closed. Better go let him out or he’ll never shut up. It was nice meeting you, Ben, Sam.”
She gave a last smile and then headed up the steps with the cookies. She stopped to pick up the pitcher, then went inside, closing the door behind her with her hip. The sound of the television went mute, and Harley’s barking became muffled. Ben stayed where he was until it stopped entirely. Then he started up the sidewalk with Sam. He went in the direction away from the library. He wasn’t exactly sure where he was heading. On Sundays, he often pushed Sam down to a bakery in town, got a bagel with creamed cheese, and brought it to the park for lunch. So, he thought he might do that. But he was walking in the opposite direction, so he wasn’t really certain.
The next morning, Ben brought Sam to his annual appointment with his longtime dysmorphologist, Dr. Jenkins. He was a specialist in genetic disorders and had first seen Sam when he’d been moved to the NICU just after birth for “failure to thrive”. Ben could still remember the slow, careful way he’d examined Sam that initial time, meticulously checking his fingers, nipples, testicles, skull, toes, the splay of his legs. Afterwards, he’d ordered some tests, and arranged to meet with Ben and his wife a few days later. When he did, he told them that Sam had a number of anatomical and neurological abnormalities that indicated that he would be disabled and that the degree would be severe. The tests showed no chromosomal explanations, and there was nothing to suggest environmental causes, so he was terming it an undiagnosed genetic syndrome for the time being. He said he’d already begun researching known data bases to try to find a match for Sam’s combination of descriptors, but had so far come up empty; he’d keep trying, he said. He was confident, he told them, that he would find answers.
Ben’s wife had asked then abruptly about life expectancy, and Dr. Jenkins had paused for a moment before answering, looking back and forth between them. Finally, he said, “Generally not very long, I’m afraid. Compromised immune systems usually result in chronic pneumonias, and that’s often what’s involved in the end. It’s a cruel geometry.”
“How long?” she asked.
He raised his eyebrows and turned his palms up. “Can’t exactly say.”
“Usually, I mean.”
“Well.” He paused again.
She leaned forward quickly and asked, “What’s typical?” She almost shouted it.
He made a small shrug, looking at her directly. “Five years,” he told her quietly. “Five or six.”
Dr. Jenkins had never found an explanation for Sam’s syndrome, even though Ben came to learn that he was one of the world’s leading experts in his field. They saw him every fall because, as Dr. Jenkins explained, the study of genetics was ever-changing, so new and useful information might become available. Although Sam did have chronic pneumonias, as well as many other hospitalizations and difficult problems, he’d long outlived projections; Dr. Jenkins marveled at that. He’d continued to see Sam even after he’d aged-out of the doctor’s pediatric practice. A new study or test occasionally came along that he wanted to include Sam in, but no significant information was ever yielded from them. Still, they continued the annual visits, and over the years, a warm relationship had ensued that wasn’t friendship exactly, but was more than just acquaintance.
Dr. Jenkins was about Ben’s age, with a halo of white hair and an assortment of corduroy trousers. He was also the director of the convalescent wing for severely disabled and medically fragile children where Sam had spent those thirteen months early on; he’d sometimes referred parents who were anxious about placing their child there to Ben so he could share the positive experience he’d had with the facility and its level of care.
Their appointment that morning went much the same as they all had since Sam was young. Dr. Jenkins measured the circumference of Sam’s head, did a thorough physical examination, asked about his health since their last visit, and then had little new to share or suggest.
“There has been some recent metabolic research,” he told Ben. “But I don’t think it’s going to shed any special light on Sam. How’s he been doing developmentally?”
“Oh,” Ben said, “about the same. Sometimes, it appears he might hit a switch toy with a little more meaning. But, I don’t know. He seems to have a new squawk to show displeasure . . . diaper changing or repositioning he’s not happy about.”
Ben pursed his lips.
“It is. It’s a change. An increase in communication.”
Dr. Jenkins nodded and grinned. He knocked gently on Sam’s head with his knuckles. “Listen,” he said. “I think there’s more going on in there than meets the eye. A lot more.”
“Do you really?”
“I do.” He regarded Ben in a way that reminded him of the exchange with his wife all those years ago. “I sincerely believe that.” He clapped Sam on the shoulder, and then did the same to Ben. “How you holding up, dad?”
“You managing without the day nursing.”
Dr. Jenkins did the same, then said, “We have a set of parents at the convalescent wing who are considering bringing their child home with limited nursing help, but are unsure they can handle it. Can I give them your number if they want to talk to you about that?”
“Sure,” Ben told him. “You can always do that.”
A couple of nights later, while Ben sat on the couch with Sam watching another mystery episode, a knock came from the front door. He straightened and steadied Sam, switched off the television, and went to open the door. Alice stood on the front step holding the plate he’d given her. On it were lemon bars sprinkled with powdered sugar and cut into small squares.
“Hello,” she said. “Wanted to get this back to you. My mother taught me to never return an empty plate.”
Ben flipped on the porch light and took the plate from her. “Thanks. Will you come in and have one with me?”
“Well,” she looked behind her. “Maybe for just a minute. Have to get my dad’s night pills in him.”
She followed him to the couch. He sat where he’d been, and she settled on the other side of Sam. She used a finger to turn Sam’s face towards her. “Well, hello there,” she said to him. “It’s good to see you again.”
Ben held the plate out to her. She took a lemon bar from it, and he did the same. They both took a bite. “Yum,” Ben said, squinting a little at the tartness. He set the plate down on the coffee table in front of them.
Alice looked around the room. “This is nice, a nice place. Cozy. Don’t they call this type of house a Craftsman Bungalow?”
“I believe so.”
“The fireplace is nice. I love a fire in the winter.”
Ben nodded. It stayed quiet then while she looked around the room some more. It was still enough to hear the last southbound train of the night blow its whistle in the distance as it entered the downtown station across the bay. They both nibbled at their lemon bars.
“So,” Alice looked back at Ben. “Is it just the two of you then? You and Sam?”
Ben nodded again.
“How do you manage work?”
“I don’t anymore. I retired earlier this year.” He pointed over her shoulder. “I used to teach across the street.”
“And at night?”
“He has a nurse that comes. Same one during the week, then different floats on the weekend. How about you with your dad?”
“Oh, he doesn’t require much except his medications, being sure he changes his diaper, and his television. He generally sleeps through the night. I have a caregiver who comes from ten until two weekdays while I’m working. She changes his bedding if he wets through his diaper, does laundry, gets him his pills and lunch. Helps him out to his folding chair on the side porch when he wants to smoke. Takes Harley for a walk. Gives him a shower every other day.” She paused. “That’s about it. I get him fed and taken care of in the morning before I leave, and then he’s usually fine until I get home from work.”
“What do you do?”
“I’m a social worker.”
“What kind? I mean, where?”
“Just down from the children’s hospital.”
Ben put a hand on Sam’s knee. “We’ve spent a lot of time there.”
She smiled. “I admire how you care for him.”
Ben shrugged. “Just like you with your father.”
“Not quite the same.”
They looked at each other for a long moment until Alice finally blew out a breath and stood up. “Well, I better get back.”
“Appreciate the treats,” Ben said. “And the company.”
She smiled again. “Me, too.”
“Do you need anything over there?”
“I don’t think so. Not right now.”
“But you’ll let me know.”
“I will, yes.”
He walked her to the door and watched her go down the steps. At the bottom, she turned and said, “It’s nice knowing you’re here. Right next door.”
He smiled and nodded. She turned, and he waited until she’d gone through the gate and started left towards her house before he shut the door and switched off the porch light. But he stayed there in the entryway in the darkness watching through the front window until she disappeared behind the hedge.
On Sunday morning, Ben finished the final touches on the birdhouse he’d been building. He brought Sam outside in his wheelchair, put the birdhouse on his lap, and pushed him over inside the gate to their new neighbors’ house. The front door was closed. Ben climbed the steps with the birdhouse and rang the bell. Alice opened the door with her smile; Carl lay behind her watching television.
Ben said, “Was hoping to talk to your dad.”
Alice raised her eyebrows, but her smile remained. She stepped aside and said, “All right. Come on in.”
Ben moved past her into the living room. She stayed in the open doorway. He walked over to the bedside where Carl turned his head and looked up at him. The old man was lying on top of a pair of the same sort of padded chucks that Ben used for Sam and had a worn fleece throw over his ankles. A Jack Russell terrier lay against his leg and raised his head to regard Ben, too, his tail thumping.
“That’s Harley,” he heard Alice say. “They’re basically inseparable.”
Ben nodded, then showed Carl the birdhouse and said, “So, I thought you might like something to look at while you smoke. Made this. Maybe you can find a spot for it out there.”
The old man’s head wobbled a little on the pillow. He looked up at Ben, blinking with confusion.
“Isn’t that wonderful, Dad?” Alice said. “We can hang it outside the door there. There’s already a bracket. You can bring out crusts from your toast in the morning.”
Carl looked back and forth from her to Ben. Finally, he grunted, “Okay.”
Ben set the birdhouse at the end of the bed facing it toward Carl. He’d painted it red. “All right,” he told the old man. “Guess we’ll see you later, then.”
As he passed Alice in the doorway, she whispered, “He’ll love that. It’s very kind of you.”
She followed him down the steps and bent down in front of Sam. “What a thoughtful father you have,” she told him. “What a good man.” She reached out suddenly and hugged Sam, then straightened and said, “Look at me. Look at what I’ve gone and done.”
“That’s fine,” Sam gave one of his happy squawks, and a warm feeling spread through Ben. “See, he likes it.”
Sam’s seizures increased over the next few days, both their intensity and duration. He had clusters during two overnight shifts for Denise after which she had to give oral valium. And then one morning from the garage, he heard Sam crying on the baby monitor and ran in to find him jerking and convulsing as hard as he had in many years. When it still hadn’t stopped in nearly five minutes, Ben got out the big syringe of rectal valium, inserted the tip in Sam’s anus, and pushed the plunger. He hadn’t had to use it for so long, he wasn’t even sure if the dosage was still accurate for his weight. But the convulsing slowly subsided as Ben cradled his son’s head until he’d gone still and fallen asleep.
Afterwards, he called and left a message for Sam’s neurologist asking for direction. She returned his call after lunch and said she wanted new blood draws taken as soon as possible to get current levels for the anti-seizure meds Sam was on. She’d already sent the orders to the lab. Once she got those results, she’d call if she wanted to make any adjustments or changes.
As soon as he hung up, Ben got Sam ready and drove him up to the hospital. He glanced at Juvenile Hall when he passed it and supposed that Alice was inside. He thought he saw her car in the parking lot that fronted a recreation yard surrounded by tall chain link fencing topped with concertina wire. The blood draw was relatively quick, and Ben had Sam back home again within an hour and a half.
The neurologist called again late that afternoon. She’d read the lab results and did want to increase dosages on two of the meds, as well as add a new one. She’d just had the new scripts faxed to Ben’s pharmacy. He thanked her, hung up, and checked his watch. It was a little before five-thirty; if he left right away, he could pick up the meds before the pharmacy closed.
He hurried Sam out to the van at the curb on the side of the house. As he was beginning to pull away, he saw Alice in the rear-view mirror come out her front door and down the steps with Harley on a leash whose handle sprouted plastic bags. She wore a dark cardigan sweater, a white blouse, gray slacks, and flats: work clothes. Ben raised his hand to wave, but Alice had turned in the opposite direction coming out the gate and didn’t see him.
That night, he lay awake after getting into bed. He thought, as he had several times since he’d met Alice, that he could conceivably be almost old enough to be her father, but not quite.
Ben waited three days to be sure Sam’s seizures had returned to normal before bringing him outside again. On that third afternoon, he bundled him up in his wheelchair and pushed him to the back gate shortly before five-thirty. When Ben heard the front door at the house next door open and the excited scrape of Harley’s paws on the front steps, he pushed Sam out through the gate and started up the sidewalk toward them.
Alice turned and smiled as she closed her own gate behind her, and Ben nodded to her as he had that first morning.
“Going for walk?” she asked.
“Us, too. Want company?”
They started up the sidewalk side by side in the early gloaming, Ben and Sam on the inside and Alice and Harley on the outside where he could pull and sniff along the strip of grass between the walk and the curb.
“So,” Ben said, “how was your day?”
She told him about a boy she was sad about at Juvenile Hall. She’d been working with him for almost six months, and he’d been scheduled to be released that morning, but had gotten in a fight, so was locked up again. She asked about Sam, and Ben summarized the recent seizure problems. He let her know that Sam was allergic to dogs, but would be fine with Harley as long as they weren’t inside together. They talked about how her father had been doing, about winter coming on, about how quiet the neighborhood was. At one point, Harley did his business, and she cleaned it up. At another, the streetlamps blinked on. At times, they walked in silence that seemed neither awkward or unpleasant. They walked up two blocks, then turned left one block, and returned home.
When they came to the front of her house, Alice asked, “Do you often go for walks around this time?”
“Sometimes,” he lied.
“Well, this is a pretty regular thing for us, right after I get home from work.” She looked at him. “Be pleased to have you come along with us anytime.”
“We’d like that,” Ben said. The warm feeling had spread up in him again. He put a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Wouldn’t we, Sam?”
The next evening, Alice was waiting for them in front of her house with Harley on his leash when Ben pushed Sam through the back gate. They exchanged smiles and started up the sidewalk in the same direction as before. Their conversation was similar to the previous day, as well, until they’d turned the second corner and Alice asked, “So, Sam’s mom . . . where is she?”
Ben shrugged. “Gone. A long time ago. Almost twenty years.” He paused. “Things with Sam got too hard, I guess. He was really struggling back then.”
They walked in silence for a while until Alice asked, “She’s not involved at all?”
He shook his head. “Moved away, I’m not sure where. Never been back.”
“Gosh,” she said quietly.
Ben let almost a minute pass before asking, “How about you?”
“Been married? Boyfriend, significant other, or whatever the correct term is these days?”
“No, not anymore. I was with a man for a long time, but he found someone new.” Ben looked over at her, and she took a turn shrugging. “That was a while back, too. And, then, my stepmother passed away, and I began taking care of my dad. So, there you are.”
Harley stopped to do his business. Ben adjusted Sam’s headrest while she dealt with that. After they resumed walking, he asked, “How long has he been with you?”
“If you don’t mind my asking, what’s wrong with him exactly? “
“Well, aside from wrecking himself with drugs and alcohol for years when he was younger, a series of small strokes mainly. Mini-strokes, the doctor calls them. They’ve left him pretty weak and mixed-up most of the time. Speaking is really hard for him. But, he means well and, believe it or not, still has his dignity.”
They’d come to the corner where they’d turned back the evening before. Alice stopped under the streetlamp and said, “I’d be fine with walking a bit more, if you would. It’s a nice night.”
“Sure, we’re in no hurry.”
Alice smiled, closed her eyes, and sniffed. “Smell that? Someone has a fire going. A fire in a fireplace.”
“Getting to be that time of year.”
“Already. Things seem to be moving more quickly the older I get.”
“Yes,” Ben said. They started down the street again towards the police station. “I agree.”
That was a Tuesday, and they walked every afternoon that week, going a little further each evening. She told him more about work and her upbringing as an only child: how badly her father had treated her mother, their divorce when she was eight, her mother remarrying when she went away to college and moving with her new husband to another state. She asked about his teaching, his own past, more about Sam, and he explained those things to her as best he could.
Neither of them said anything further about Sam’s mother or the man Alice had been with. At the end of each walk, she gave Sam a hug before they parted.
* * *
On Saturday morning, Alice knocked on Ben’s front door. When he answered it, she said, “You told me to let you know if I needed something.”
He nodded. “That’s right.”
“Well, the faucet on the kitchen sink keeps running.”
“Just let me get Sam’s baby monitor, and I’ll be right over. I’ll meet you there.”
He stopped for his toolbox in the garage before going over. Their front door was open, so he knocked on the frame and went inside. Carl was lying propped up in bed with Harley on his lap watching television. Ben said hello to him, and then hesitated long enough to be sure he could still hear Sam on the monitor before joining Alice in the kitchen. Water was trickling from the faucet. Ben tightened the handles to it, but the trickling persisted.
“Probably just needs a new washer,” he said. “I think I have one in the toolbox. We’ll have to turn the water off under the sink first.”
Ben knelt and handed her things from the cupboard as he cleared the space. He closed the water valves off, then got what he needed out of the toolbox. She stood off a few feet away and asked, “Can I do anything to help?”
He shook his head. Dusty light streamed through the window over the sink where a small African violet perched in a clay pot on the sill. It only took a few minutes to fix the leak. He turned on the valves under the sink and tried the faucet to be sure the drip had stopped before they both knelt and put the things back in the cupboard, brushing together as they did.
When they stood up, their faces were a little flushed. Alice said, “Can I repay you somehow?”
“No.” They looked at each other in the white morning light. He heard Sam cough once on the monitor. “It was nothing.”
“Well, it’s most appreciated.”
He picked up his toolbox, and she followed him into the living room. Ben said goodbye to Carl and walked to the front door. He stopped there and turned around. “Say, they’re having a little Christmas parade through downtown tonight. It’s a dinky little thing, but kind of a neat tradition. Wondering if you’d like to bring your dad and Harley and walk up to the library lawn with Sam and me to watch it.”
Alice’s eyes widened and she looked at her father. “Dad, what do you think? Would you like to do that?
He gazed uncertainly back and forth between them, but said, “Okay.”
Alice clapped her hands together once and gave one of her smiles.
“All right, then,” Ben said. “Sam and I will meet you out by the garages a little before five.”
* * *
It was early December, chilly, and twilight was falling when they started down the street to the parade. The two wheelchairs just fit side-by-side on the sidewalk. Harley walked out in front with Carl holding his leash. Many houses along the way had their Christmas lights up and lit, and there were a few trees decorated in front windows.
They found a spot on the library lawn near the corner. Other people had gathered in clusters nearby, some standing, some sitting in folding chairs. Carl and Sam both wore knit caps with blankets over their laps. Harley curled up at Carl’s feet and went to sleep. Ben had brought a thermos of hot chocolate and Styrofoam cups in Sam’s bag; he poured some for Alice, Carl, and himself. The front of the parade was approaching them as they took their first sips.
It wasn’t much of an event, but people cheered and clapped heartily just the same. The high school band went by first, then two scout troops, a few elected officials sitting and waving in the front passenger seats of convertibles, a small community choir singing carols, a trio of horses and riders decked out in Christmas finery, and then the grand finale: Santa up on a sleigh perched on a flatbed being pulled by a pick-up truck. He waved and tossed tiny wrapped candy canes that children scrambled to retrieve. As he passed by them, Carl extended his steaming cup and grunted, “Ho, ho, ho!” Alice and Ben exchanged surprised glances and laughed, and Sam squawked happily at the commotion.
Afterwards, they walked home slowly. At Ben’s back gate, they paused. Ben didn’t open the gate and Alice didn’t push her father further. Ben wiped Sam’s chin. She adjusted her father’s knit cap. Finally, Alice said, “Well, that was pretty great. Didn’t you like it, Dad?”
Ben said, “I’m glad.”
Alice looked at Ben, then leaned down and gave Sam a hug. “Well, goodnight, you two,” she told him.
“So, listen,” Ben said to her quickly. “You mentioned liking fires. So, I was thinking that after dinner, if you want, you could come by for a little while and we could make one and play cards or something.” He shrugged. “Rummy?”
“I used to play rummy with my grandmother. I like rummy.”
“I’d have to start getting Sam ready for his nurse around eight-thirty, but we’d have a little while. Enough for a few games.”
She smiled. “I have part of a bottle of wine I could bring.”
“All right. I’ll leave the back door open. You can just come through this gate and let yourself in. Whenever you’re done with dinner and whatever else you need to do. It doesn’t matter what time.”
The wash of light from the streetlamp on the corner just reached them. Alice said quietly, “Well, I’ll see you soon then.”
“Okay,” Ben replied. “Good.”
He opened the gate, guiding Sam through it, and Alice pushed her father the few remaining steps to their house. As each of them did, they acknowledged silently to themselves that something had happened; something had changed.
* * *
A little after seven, Alice said, “Knock, knock,” letting herself in through Ben’s back door with the wine bottle. She found him in the living room stirring logs that were burning in the fireplace. A deck of cards and two small glasses sat on the coffee table. The two of them looked at each other. It appeared to Alice that Ben had shaved, and it seemed to him that she might have applied a little make-up.
Alice came over next to him, looked down at the fire, and sighed. She said, “Nice. Really nice.”
“Here,” Ben said, “Let me pour some of that for us.”
He took the bottle from her, and she followed him to the couch. They sat where they had on that earlier evening, but closer.
“I’m sorry,” Ben said. “I don’t even own goblets. Hope these juice glasses will do.”
“They’ll do just fine.”
He poured, gave her a glass, and raised his. “Well, here’s to rummy and fires.”
“And good neighbors.”
They clinked and sipped.
“That’s good,” Ben said, looking at his glass. “I almost never have wine. I like it.”
“Supposed to be a health aid . . . in moderation.”
“All the more reason.” They each sipped again, and Ben said. “Well, do you want to deal or should I?”
“You go ahead.”
He dealt, and then they played with little conversation other than gentle chiding and an occasional laugh. They played and sipped wine while the fire crackled and an occasional car went by in the street about which they were unaware. When she wasn’t playing a hand, Alice often gazed at the fire with a small smile. At one point, Sam gave his happy squawk from his bed where Ben had situated him with music headphones. At another, Ben refilled their glasses with what was left in the bottle. It was warm in the room.
After a while, when a game had ended, Ben looked at his watch. She watched him frown.
“That’s okay. I should get back for my dad, too.” She held out what was left in her glass. He clinked again with his own, and they each took a last swallow.
Alice said, “This has been lovely.”
“Yes, it has.”
“Can I say goodnight to Sam before I leave?”
She followed Ben into Sam’s room where he lay with his tongue dangling, his eyes wide, drool on his chin. Ben wiped it off.
“Hi, there, you,” Alice said. “Have a good sleep. I enjoyed spending time with you guys tonight.”
She leaned down and gave him one of her hugs. As she did, Ben shook his head a little, the warm, now-familiar bubble rising up in him.
He walked with her to the back door and held it open for her. She hesitated there on the back porch, looking out into the night.
A few seconds later, she turned to him and said, “Well, thanks. Goodnight, Ben.”
“Maybewe can do this again.”
“I’d like that.” Another moment passed before she said, “Well, then.”
He watched her go down the steps and out the gate. It closed with a click. He stayed in the doorway until he’d heard her footsteps go the little ways to her own gate, heard her go through it, heard her climb her steps, heard her front door open and close. Then he looked up at the black sky, too, where there was another scattering of stars and a new sliver of moon.
Alice came over the following two Friday and Saturday nights for rummy and wine with a fire, and their walks after she got home from work continued on the majority of other evenings.
The holidays arrived. They exchanged gifts at Ben’s house one afternoon before Alice drove her father and Harley up to Fresno for several days to spend Christmas with a cousin’s family. While they were gone, Ben and Sam still took walks in the late afternoon by themselves. On Christmas night, Ben made a fire and sat with Sam on the couch. He turned off the lamp, sipped eggnog splashed with rum, looked at the lit Christmas tree in the darkness, and just thought about things until it was time to get Sam ready for bed.
* * *
A couple of weeks later, on a Thursday, they were on a walk, and Ben said to Alice, “So, I’ve been fiddling with a few new recipes lately. Going to give corn chowder a go tomorrow. You could try it with me, if you’re interested. I can’t promise it will be any good.”
“Sure.” Her eyes brightened.“I can get my dad his dinner early and be there by about six-thirty. Will that do?”
He nodded. “And we’d have enough time for a fire and some rummy afterwards.”
“I’ll bring crusty bread. That goes well with corn chowder.”
“I’ll have salad, too. And, of course, wine.”
“All right, then.” She covered a tiny, startled giggle with her fingertips. “I almost said, ‘it’s a date’.”
He chuckled. “Well, it sort of is. You could almost call it that. Some people would.”
“Yes, I guess they would. There’s no harm in calling it that, saying that. So, it’s a date, then.”
Alice almost reached out and put her arm through his, but stopped herself.
They had dinner together that next evening and many afterwards during the early part of the winter.
Flu season in the colder months was often tough for Sam, but things went along well with his health until a Monday night in late February. He began to run a low-grade fever about eight o’clock, and his heart rate also became elevated. His secretions were unremarkable, but Ben found the sandy remains of a passed kidney stone when changing a wet diaper. He gave Sam Tylenol, and his fever and heart rate had come down a little by the time Denise arrived.
Ben summarized what had been happening to her. “You can rotate and give Motrin at midnight, if needed. Keep an eye to see if he grimaces, cries, or brings his knees up towards his chest. You know, markers of something wrong with his gut again.”
She nodded, looked down at Sam, and said, “Hang in there, buddy.”
Ben kissed his son’s forehead and told her, “Wake me if you need to.”
Later during the night, there was a knock on the door that led from the bathroom to his bedroom. He sat straight up in bed, and said, “Yes, what is it?”
From the other side of the door, Denise said, “All his markers are up. I gave Motrin a few hours ago, but the fever and heart rate keep climbing. He’s passed another stone and he’s begun whimpering.”
The clock on the nightstand read three-thirty. He said, “I’m coming.”
Ben hurried through the bathroom and joined Denise at his son’s bedside. Sam was flushed and grimacing, and his knees were raised. The sat monitor showed a heart rate that was very elevated and an oxygen level barely above his lower margin.
“All right,” Ben said. “Can you help get his things ready and stop his feed while I change? I’ll take him up to the ER.”
Thirty minutes later, he was passing Juvenile Hall in the van and then hurrying Sam in his wheelchair into the emergency room of the children’s hospital where they could, thankfully, still be seen until he turned twenty-two. The receptionist looked at them with recognition, and they were led quickly to an examining room. A nurse helped Ben transfer Sam into the first bed there and began checking vital signs and hooking him up to monitors. As she worked, Ben explained the markers to her. When the sat monitor blinked on, Ben saw that Sam’s O2 levels had dropped further, and she fitted a ring over his trach that was connected to tubing from a canister on the wall behind him and started him on two liters of oxygen.
“All right,” she told him. “Someone will be in soon.”
She left the room. Ben pulled a chair over next to Sam and held his hand. The other two beds in the room were empty and the dividing curtains around them weren’t drawn. Although it had been almost ten months since their last visit, the bustling sounds and smells from the ER were as familiar as ever to Ben; he’d stopped counting trips there years before, after their fiftieth visit. He recognized most of the nurses and staff who passed by their open door, and a few nodded in greeting. Every now and then, Sam whimpered, and Ben squeezed his hand.
Perhaps ten minutes passed before the same nurse returned with a tray of small syringes and other supplies. “The doc wants labs taken.”
Ben nodded and asked, “Lipase levels?”
“And white blood cell count. The usual battery.”
He nodded again and moved out of her way. When she finished, he returned where he’d been and waited. On occasion, he drifted into sleep and then jerked awake again. At one point, he felt a hand gently shake his shoulder and he blinked his eyes open to find a doctor standing in front of him studying a chart. He was the same resident they’d had during their last visit, a short, balding young man with horn-rimmed glasses.
“So,” he said. “Back again.”
The doctor nodded and flipped a page. He sighed and said, “So, I’m sad to say that it’s another pancreatitis.”
Ben looked at his son. He said, “I was pretty much expecting that.”
“The lipase levels are fairly high this time. So, you know the drill. We’ll admit him upstairs as soon as they have a bed ready, and we’ll start him right away on an antibiotic, IV fluids, a pain med, the rest. Well, I don’t have to tell you.”
“No.” Ben shook his head. “By the levels, can you guess how long he’ll need to be admitted? Just so I can prepare.”
The doctor shrugged. “A while, I’d say. Sorry. You know the routine.”
“Wish I had better news,” he said and then left.
They were up on the second floor and settled in a single room not too long afterwards. Ben recognized more than half of the staff there, too. A nursing assistant brought sheets, blankets, and a pillow for him without asking and set them on the recliner. As the nurse readied Sam in bed, Ben gave the usual lengthy medical history and accounting of meds and procedures to the floor’s resident while he took notes.
When they were alone in the room, Ben bent down next to Sam and sang his three lullabies softly to him again while he slept. He gave him a kiss, then took off his jacket and shoes and folded the recliner down flat. He didn’t bother with the sheets, but crawled under the blanket with the pillow and lay down. He reached over and twisted the wand that closed the blinds against the first strains of dawn.
Ben was awake the next morning when the attending physician, a middle-aged woman with short auburn hair, came by with her team of residents. She’d also been the attending on their last admittance, so their conversation was brief and to the point. She told him that the labs they’d taken in the ER were recent enough that new ones wouldn’t be drawn until around noon, so they wouldn’t know the effect of the antibiotic on Sam’s lipase levels until those results were available. She told him they’d keep Sam on the pain med just to be safe until those levels had been substantially reduced. She gave a frown and said, “So, it’s really a lot of wait and see, which you’re well aware of.”
One of the female residents asked, “How long has he had acute pancreatitis?”
The attending physician shot her a glance as Ben replied, “I wasn’t aware that they were acute.”
“Well,” the resident mumbled, “it just says on the chart . . .”
She didn’t finish, and the attending physician led them briskly out of the room. He looked after them, blinking. He rubbed his son’s chest gently and watched him sleep. Ben had heard that pancreatitis hurt worse than childbirth, and he hoped again, as he had many times, that Sam simply didn’t experience pain the way others did. By the stoic way that Sam had reacted to previous bouts and to other events like broken bones connected to his osteoporosis, it seemed that might be the case. He tried to believe it. What were the alternatives?
Ben went down to the cafeteria and brought breakfast back to Sam’s room, which was part of his routine during an admittance. He went home briefly mid-morning to shower, change clothes, and collect some things before returning, which was also part of the routine. He brought back a book to read, as well as a blanket and stuffed animal from Sam’s bed. He held those to Sam’s nose so he could smell them before settling them around him. He called Denise to let her know not to come for another shift until after Sam was discharged, which would probably be at least several days. Then he sat and read, repositioning his son and suctioning him on occasion, until the next blood draw a little before noon. When the respiratory therapist came to do Sam’s breathing treatment, he went down to the cafeteria for lunch. Afterwards, he gave Sam a sponge bath, then sat next to him again reading and dozing.
The nurse came in with the lab results about four o’clock. Sam’s lipase levels had decreased a little and his white blood cell count was lower, as well. They’d also been able to reduce his oxygen needs from two liters to one.
“That’s better,” Ben told Sam, even though his son was sleeping soundly. “Still a ways to go, but headed in the right direction.”
For the rest of the afternoon, except for attending to Sam occasionally, Ben sat in the recliner and tried to read. But his mind drifted to other things. He thought of the first time he and his wife had brought Sam up to the ER in the middle of the night. It had been for what turned out to be his initial pneumonia not long after he’d finally gone home from the NICU. Ben had spent the night in Sam’s room then, too, as he had every night afterwards during an admittance. Ben thought about the challenge of managing Sam’s care needs after his wife left while he was still teaching; it wasn’t unlike what Alice was doing for her father. He thought of Alice and of their time together since she’d moved in next door.
He was thinking of that when he realized it had become dark enough to see his own reflection in the window, and he called Alice’s cell phone from his own. He left a message telling her what was going on with Sam and that they wouldn’t be going for a walk that evening. After he finished, he looked at the clock. It was a little after five, so she may already have been driving home when he left it.
But, a half-hour later, Ben looked up from his reading, and Alice was standing in the doorway, holding flowers. Ben closed his book and felt the warmth start up through him.
She said, “I got your message. Really sorry Sam is sick.”
She walked to the side of the bed, leaned down, and said, “I better not hug you, but I brought you these. They’re pretty tired-looking. Not much left to choose from in the gift shop.”
Ben stood and took them from her. “That’s very kind of you, very thoughtful. It’s really nice to see you. Thanks for coming.”
She kissed her fingertip and touched it to Sam’s forehead before straightening. “How bad is it?”
Ben shrugged. “Not sure. He’s had these before and they vary. This one seems on the hard side. But he’s better than last night, so that’s encouraging.”
She smoothed Sam’s hair, and they were quiet until she said, “He’s really something, isn’t he? He’s a fighter. He just soldiers on.”
Ben nodded. “He’s my hero. That’s for sure.”
“Can I get you anything? Either of you . . . bring something from home?”
“No, I stopped by the house this morning. I’ll keep going down to shower and change clothes each day. Pretty used to this by now.” He paused. “I’ll miss our walk.”
“Well, how about if I buy you a fancy cafeteria dinner instead? You have to eat, don’t you?”
“I guess.” The warmth inside him spread further as they looked at each other in the darkening room. “That would be great, actually. Let me put these in some water before we go down.”
The next day was more of the same. Ben waited for the results of the labs that had been taken after shift change before going home; the lipase levels and white blood cell counts had continued to improve slightly, but Sam’s oxygen needs remained the same.
He took his lunch out to the little area known as “the healing garden” situated between the acute hospital and the convalescent wing. Ben had brought Sam there most afternoons when he came up to visit him after work during the thirteen months he’d been in that wing. The garden was empty, as it had been almost always those many years before. He sat on the same bench he used to with Sam under a tree that had the same wind chimes that Sam had liked tinkling in the branches above him. The fountain in which he’d often dangled Sam’s hand splashed away nearby, and the shrubbery and small mosaics scattered among the footpaths and grass hadn’t changed. Ben ate and thought about those early days. When he thought about the night towards the end of Sam’s stay in the convalescent wing when his wife had left, he didn’t chase it off like he usually did. He let it continue until the memory of the sound of her car’s tires disappearing down the street had died away. The same dull ache began, as did the shadow that always seemed to pass over him when he allowed those thoughts to linger. He finished eating quickly and returned to Sam’s room.
About five-thirty, Alice appeared in the doorway again with her smile carrying a pizza box, and that different, better feeling spread up through him.
Ben was able to take Sam home from the hospital the following Monday afternoon. Except for a new, milder feeding formula that the doctors hoped would be easier on his pancreas, there were no additional care elements tied to the discharge. Sam quickly returned to baseline, and they resumed their daily and nightly routines at home and with their neighbors next door.
* * *
In early March, with the milder weather beginning, they took Carl for a jet boat ride on his birthday. It departed from across the bay on the embarcadero. The boat was a big sixty-foot cruiser painted red, white, and blue called Patriot. The captain commandeered up in back and the open front deck had rows of plastic seats with room for a hundred or so passengers. It sped up and down the bay swerving back and forth and making sudden 360-degree spins that caused tall waves of water to leap over the bow and splash the passengers. Alice thought it might remind her father of his younger dare-devil days on his motorcycle.
Ben and Sam waited on the dock with Carl’s wheelchair and watched Alice help her father onto the boat and into one of its rear seats. The company allowed them to board a little early to do that. Alice fit a clear throw-away poncho issued to passengers over Carl first, then herself. She waved to Ben and Sam as the other passengers began to board. Ten minutes later, the captain gave instructions over a loudspeaker, then backed the big boat into the bay’s channel and tore off. It was a clear, sunny afternoon, and Ben could hear well the happy, excited shouts of the passengers across the water as the boat spun and darted.
When they returned to the dock, Alice and Carl had the hoods on their dripping ponchos over their heads. Alice waved again and gave a thumbs-up sign. She took off their ponchos and handed them to the attendant as they were the last passengers to disembark. Alice smiled widely as they came up to Ben and Sam.
Ben asked, “So, did you like that, Carl?”
The old man’s long hair and beard dripped onto his shirt. He looked startled, wild-eyed, but was grinning. “Yeah,” he said. “Fuck, yeah!”
A few weeks later, Ben and Alice were playing rummy after dinner. Between hands, Ben got up to stir the fire.
When he returned to the couch, he said, “Weather’s warming up. Might be one of the last of these for the season.”
Alice sighed and looked at the fire. She took a sip of wine, then set the glass on the coffee table and sighed again. It was her turn to deal, but she made no movement towards the cards on the coffee table. Finally, she turned to Ben and said, “Are you ever going to touch me? Are we ever going to touch?”
Ben’s heart fell and rose. “Well, I didn’t know . . . I’ve wanted to.”
“Then why haven’t you?”
“Well, there’s the age . . .”
“I don’t care.”
“I’m not exactly a catch. I’m a sixty-two-year-old man caring for his disabled son.”
“Do you know how sexy that is?”
“Yes. To me.”
He waited a moment more while they looked at each other before he reached out and touched her cheek. Very gently, he ran a fingertip over to her ear, then slowly down the side of her face to her chin. Alice closed her eyes and tilted her head into the palm he opened. He turned her face to his and they kissed. Lightly at first, then deeper and longer.
A log fell in the fireplace and hissed. One of Alice’s hands had moved on top of Ben’s thigh. He’d closed his arm around her. Soft, almost hungry sounds escaped them. She stood up suddenly, took his hand, and he followed her into his bedroom.
Afterwards, they lay naked in the dark, her head on his chest, both their hearts gradually slowing.
Alice whispered, “My.”
“Yeah,” Ben whispered back, stroking her hair. “Wow.”
Alice began spending the night several times a week. When she did, she put one of Sam’s baby monitors on her father’s tray table and put the other on the nightstand next to her. On those nights, they’d lay, often silently, holding each other, the bathroom doors cracked open so they could hear Sam in bed, until Ben had to get up to tend to him before the nurse arrived. Sometimes, Alice was already asleep by then.
* * *
Carl developed a skin problem later that spring. He’d begun having open sores on his ankles, arms, and the back of one knee. Alice took him to his dermatologist, who gave him a shot and prescribed an ointment. He had to keep the infected areas open to the air as much as possible, so Alice cut his sweatpants accordingly and placed a pillow under the thigh that had the knee infection to keep it propped up in bed. Over time, his condition improved some, but not completely. The doctor said it might just be something that lingered and needed to be monitored closely, especially with Carl’s lack of movement and related circulation issues.
On a walk in early May, Alice was unusually quiet. They continued in silence for a while until Ben asked, “Something wrong?”
She paused, then nodded.
“What is it?”
“My dad’s caregiver quit today. She got a full-time job.”
“Shucks,” Ben said. They were quiet, walking slowly. “What will you do?”
“Well, the agency is trying to find a replacement, but they don’t have anyone right now. They told me they’re very short-staffed and no one wants part-time shifts like that in the middle of the day.” She shrugged. “So, I’m taking tomorrow off to care for him myself, and then I guess I’ll continue to do that until they can find someone, if they can.”
Alice kept walking, but began to cry softly. Until he looked over, Ben wasn’t aware that she was. It was the first time he’d seen her cry about anything. He stopped and took her in his arms. Holding her, he said, “I’ll come over tomorrow, and you show me what to do during those hours. I can take care of him as long as needed.”
She shook her head and said, “No, you can’t.”
“Yes, I can. I’m an old retired fart with plenty of time on his hands. Remember, I have a little caregiving experience. I can go back and forth, use a baby monitor like we’re doing when you stay over. We’ll get another set. I’ll have one on each hip like a sheriff in a western.”
When he heard her laugh a little into his chest, he smiled. She sniffled, “Well, maybe just a day or two. Until they can find someone.”
She pulled away from him. “I don’t know how to thank you.”
“No need. Just keep being you.”
* * *
Ben went over the next day at ten. Alice had already bought the new baby monitors and had them ready to go. She showed him what Carl ate for lunch, how the washer and dryer worked, where she kept the clean chucks and bedding, how to apply the ointment on his sores, which pills he needed to take and when. Carl was still able to change his own diaper and clothes, and fresh sweatpants were draped over a towel rack next to the toilet; if he’d wet through, he’d leave the old ones on the floor to be cleaned. Ben already knew how to walk Harley. The needs weren’t excessive and weren’t dissimilar to Sam’s; he could handle them both.
At noon, Ben had to return home for Sam’s meds and respiratory treatment. He took one of the new baby monitors with him. “Just turn yours on when you leave for work in the morning,” he told Alice.
“I’ll walk you out.”
Alice followed him down the front steps to the gate. Her eyes were troubled. “So,” she said, “the one tricky thing is his shower. He’s due for one tomorrow and the dermatologist says it’s important that he bathe all of his body regularly to avoid more sores. He won’t let me do that . . . it’s because I’m his daughter.”
“I understand. I’ll give it a try with him.”
“He uses the safety bars I had installed to get on and off his shower chair in the stall. He’s fine with all that. He just needs assistance with the washing and drying.”
Ben nodded. “How do you think he feels about this?”
She shrugged. “Well, as you know, he doesn’t communicate much. But he likes and trusts you.”
Ben nodded some more. “With all this change, I’m guessing you’ll stay here tonight.”
“Is that all right?”
“But, we can still take our walk. I’d love to do that.”
“All right. We’ll be ready.”
She leaned over and kissed his cheek. She said, “I’m grateful. So, so grateful.”
The next morning, Ben turned on Carl’s baby monitor before he started Sam’s morning routine; he heard the old man clear his throat and Harley bark. He clipped the monitor to one side of his belt and completed his regular tasks with Sam. When he went out to the garage, he did the same with Sam’s baby monitor. He worked on the coat rack he was making for Alice and was aware of regular sounds from both houses while the classical music played softly.
Shortly before ten, he changed Sam’s diaper and repositioned him in bed, then went next door. He rang the bell, then let himself in, and said, “Morning.”
Carl grunted in reply.
“Was your night okay?”
As Ben approached the bed, Harley jumped down from it and scampered into the kitchen. Ben felt the chucks that Carl was lying on. They were wet.
“So, you need to get up and change,” Ben said. “Then I’ll throw these chucks in the washer. I’ll put your sweatpants in afterwards.”
The old man looked at him blankly but didn’t move. A siren wound its way across town. The television show was one about jungle animals. Ben picked up the remote and turned it off. It was still in the room, close and unpleasant with the urine smell.
Ben said, “And as long as you’re in the bathroom, let’s get your shower taken care of.”
Carl made a motion with his hand like he was shooing away a fly and turned his head so he was looking straight ahead. Ben felt the veins in his temples begin to pulse. The only sound was of Harley eating from his bowl in the kitchen. He moved to the foot of the bed, so that Carl was looking at him.
“Listen,” he said. “None of us signed up for this, Carl.” He tried to keep his voice as even but firm as possible. “Your daughter is in a bind, and you are, too. So, you’re going to hold up your end of the stick for her. I bathe my adult son every day. It’s no big deal, but it has to be done. So, I’m going to clean up your breakfast dishes, and while I do, you’re going to get yourself into the bathroom and get ready for your shower. When you are, shout. Understand?”
The old man made a gesture that may have been a short nod.
“Because if you don’t, I’ll carry you in there myself.”
Ben didn’t know if he could do that, but he didn’t wait for a response. He walked around the bed again, picked up Carl’s empty coffee mug and plate from the tray table, and brought them into the kitchen. He turned the water on in the sink and exaggerated the noises involved with scrubbing and rinsing the dishes, taking longer than necessary. Finally, he heard the scrape of the old man’s walker and the slow shuffle of his footsteps begin to make their way around the corner to the bathroom.
Ben put the cleaned dishes in the rack and waited a moment longer before going back into the living room. He bunched up the wet chucks and checked the rest of the bedding, which was still dry. He carried the chucks to the washer in the back of the house. As he passed the bathroom, he heard Carl moving inside. Ben put the chucks in the washer, measured detergent into the slot, but left the lid open. He returned to the living room with clean chucks and laid them on Carl’s bed. As he was finishing, he heard Carl call weakly, “Okay.”
Ben walked into the bathroom and found the old man naked and perched on the shower chair in the open stall with his side to him, his sweatpants at the base of the toilet and his glasses on the top of the tank along with his shirt and slippers. There was a canister lined with a plastic bag on a stool there for soiled diapers next to a package of clean ones. Like his set-up for Sam, the shower head was connected to a long hose that slipped out of a holder. A pair of rubber gloves and a washcloth sat on top of a towel next to the stall. He put on the gloves, stepped around the walker with the washcloth, and began going through the equivalent motions he’d completed earlier with Sam. He adjusted the water temperature, wet the washcloth, and soaped it. As he did, he avoided looking at Carl. Then, he ran a little of the water on the old man’s foot.
“Not too hot?”
Carl shook his head and stared straight ahead. Ben began bathing him. He did his feet and legs first, then his chest, armpits, back, and finally shampooed and conditioned his hair and beard, rinsing as he went. He cleaned the sores gently and carefully. Throughout the process, Carl continued to stare straight ahead and his expression remained blank.
Ben had left the portion between Carl’s belly and thighs untouched, so when he’d finished, he said, “You’re going to clean and rinse yourself down there, and I’m going to turn away. When you’re done, just drop the washcloth. I’ll hear it.”
He put the washcloth in one of Carl’s hands and the running shower head in the other. He said, “While you do that, I’ll look for a brush or comb.”
Ben found a brush in the second drawer under the sink counter. He wasn’t sure if it was Alice’s or Carl’s, but it would do; he’d ask later. After a moment, he heard the wet washcloth plop on the stall floor. Ben turned, took the shower head from the old man, and rinsed the washcloth. He turned off the faucets and re-hung the shower head. Then he began drying Carl in the same order as he’d washed him.
When he was done, he handed the towel to Carl and said, “Dry yourself down there, and I’ll get the brush. Just drop it when you’re done like you did with the washcloth.”
Ben turned away long enough to hear the drop of the towel. Next, he brushed out the old man’s long hair and beard. Carl kept his gaze on the front wall of the shower. When Ben had finished, he said, “All right. That wasn’t so bad. Alice told me that from here, you can get yourself dressed and back to bed. Is that right?”
“Good, then I’ll put these other things in the washer and start the load.”
Ben scooped up the towel, washcloth, and sweatpants with relief and left the bathroom. He started the load, put the rubber gloves on top of the washer, then returned just outside the bathroom doorway, and said, “I’m taking Harley out. You okay?”
Ben put Harley on his leash while the dog tugged in anticipation. He walked Harley along the strip of grass between the curb and the sidewalk that ran along the side of his own house. It took him a little while, but Harley didn’t even need to go much past the front of the house to take care of his business. Ben dropped the baggie in the trash can inside his gate, and by the time he returned, Carl was back in bed watching television again. When he unleashed Harley, he hopped up on the bed at the old man’s feet.
Ben came over to the bedside himself and said, “Now I’m going to put some ointment on your sores, and then we’re done.”
Carl said nothing while Ben did that and got the pillow placed correctly under his thigh. He looked from the old man to the television and said, “So, you like jungle animals?”
“Me, too,” Ben lied. They watched the show together for a minute or two until Ben said, “I’ll be back to get your lunch.”
The old man nodded. Ben walked to the front door. Before he closed it, Carl grunted quietly, “Thanks.”
The rest of that day went fine, and so did the next few. When no new caregiver had been found by the weekend, Alice apologized fiercely, and said she’d take the following week off to stay home with her dad. Ben told her not to do that, it wasn’t necessary. He said he enjoyed the extra duties; they kept him busy, kept him moving, kept him young. He’d adjusted his schedule with Sam to still be able to go to the library, run errands, anything else. Alice told him she’d placed a couple of ads of her own for caregivers and was staying in regular touch with the agency. Ben told her to just give it time and not to worry. Finally, Alice agreed. When nothing had still panned out after several weeks, he said that things were fine the way they were and asked her gently if they could please stop talking about it. Eventually, she did.
Their lives together took on new rhythms, new cadences that became regular, and like the former ones, then became routine. Simple, but contented. Separate and uncommon, but joined and intimate.
One night after making love, they were lying very still in Ben’s bed, spooning. He had his arm around her and was holding one of her breasts, and she had her hand on top of his. The window was open next to her, and a small, late-spring breeze lifted the bottom of the curtain; the faint smell of night-blooming jasmine wafted on it. Crickets called quietly. On the nightstand next to her baby monitor, Ben could see the clock; he still had fifteen more minutes before he had to get up to start Sam’s care needs.
They lay in silence until he said, “You know, we’re pretty lucky.”
“Yes.” She paused before she said, “We really are.”
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