Away From the World and the Horrific Things That Happen In It

by Barb Weitzner

As time and life passes, my fellow neighbors and I, most of us well into our eighties, gather every morning to claim our familiar positions at a table under an umbrella on the veranda, at The Bowers, an upscale assisted-living facility, our lives lived in slow motion, killing time, in similar, desperate ways. Despite my having done everything in my power to avoid being here, I have joined the resident’s here, and have been forced to join a smaller world in the long autumn of dying lives, and as I expected, away from the world and the horrific things that happen in it.

I think growing old is hard work, with long hours and whatever is left of my dignity.

Our children, too caught up with their own obligations and who are not able to bear the responsibility have placed most of us in this retirement home—our lives now bound within these gates where everything is unfamiliar. And though it has been painful for our families, they believe we have accepted the necessary adjustment with this new version of our former selves.

Although there are others who treat their new accommodations as one long vacation, the truth is, I can hardly ever remember being so idle, and except for its relatively unchanging nature since the outbreak of the corona virus, which has caused he cancellation of all group activities, our meals have become the focus which all our lives revolved.

I thank the Lord that there have been no deaths here in The Banyan Bowers although there have been rumors circulating that this information is not true.  My world has become small and gated off. I seesaw between resignation and the depression of outliving my son Tim, and my wife, Anna, seeking ways to re-orient myself to living in this cocoon. Now it is only through newspapers and TV that I learn anything about the outside world, and the horrors of the Coronavirus pandemic, which has brought about a frantic outburst of mask wearing and separation and bleaching and scrubbing everything in our facility.

Our members respect the rules and policies of this institution and for the remainder of this life we share together we all try to get along with each other. We pass our afternoons with long-winded monologues in our efforts to prove to ourselves and each other that our brains are more reliable than our disintegrating bodies, we listen with respect to each other’s opinions and often enjoy disagreeing until we run out of things to say. Our bitter mouths and tired eyes unfold stories from our finite store of memories. We recount with wheezy voices what each has made of his life, our stories of windfalls earned and lost, the women we have loved and lost, our children and pets we’ve adored, the places we’ve visited. We tell each other things we would hardly ever tell our families, although I have learned that living amongst other people you learn what not to say. No one mentions business failures, or having been swindled, underpaid, tyrannized or fired.

 Truth or fiction and taken with a grain of salt.

On weekends, friends and relatives who were not allowed to visit us, are slowly being allowed onto the premises. Families assure us they are well, taking precautions, avoiding crowds and wearing their face masks when in crowded situations. They carefully steer their conversations in a fund of innocuous information, avoiding anything they think may upset us.”The Ryan’s, Wilson’s send their love. Have you enough books/magazines/toiletries?” they ask, as they say their goodbyes.

Dave Frank maneuvers his wheelchair into a vacant spot at our table. We bob our heads by way of greeting and rearrange our chairs to accommodate him. Dave smells strongly of aftershave. Something lemony that makes me want to sneeze. Dave is the de facto mayor of The Bowers. He knows everyone and everything that is going on—Fred said this, Richie did that.

Dave’s eyes crinkle. “Did you fellows notice the sprightly lady friend that Bob Harris escorted into the dining room at lunch?” Bob Harris is one of the more ambulatory residents undaunted by his age or infirmities with a full head of white hair that many of us envy.

This earns no comment. “A really nice-looking lady,” Dave continues, wiggles his bushy eyebrows. “One of the few who still try to make themselves attractive and wouldn’t be caught dead wearing those awful muumuus we see around the lobby—those awful muumuus,”(repetition being Dave’s habit). He offers an opinion, speaks it aloud, and later has it again. He is incurably critical, his statements, fierce and unbending and which I often disagree with. If something is funny, he laughs louder than most. I do not really like him much and I do not want to hear what he does and doesn’t like. Yet I  have never shared that with him. Shakes of the head all around, a few seconds pass while we think this through together. Each of us waits for the other to speak.

Sam McKay, who has the room across the hall from me, an old gent with plastic clips that are attached from his nostrils to a portable oxygen tank, twists his lips and gives a shrug as if he had never given women’s muumuus a thought. Larry Lowson sits quietly squeezing a tennis ball, wisely choosing to keep whatever he thought, to himself. Larry never says much, but Larry never says much about anything. He mostly listens to what others have to say.

I have nothing to say either. Nothing works just fine.  No point arguing this one. Discussing the issue will only dignify it. I am not comfortable making fun of the women who are abandoned here. Not that I have stopped noticing pretty women. I can honestly and shamefully admit my devotion to Anna’s memory does not prohibit an occasional flirtation with a perky staff member or one of the nicer looking retirees. When does desire ever stop? When does a man grow out of it? Not that I am looking to get involved, but there is still something about a woman’s curves that makes a tired old man look; (fantasy far outpaces reality). And though I joke with women, I am never inappropriate.

Yet Dave’s pronouncement evokes a tiny constriction in my chest. For none of these women can provide the patience and love my Anna gave me through the best and the worst of times before she had succumbed to cancer, her heart heavy with the knowledge she had been unable to hold her family together. I have listened to more than a few checkered histories about spiteful ex-wives, huge divorce settlements. I have never doubted that I would have been lost without Anna, and now regret my youthful tomcatting, my reckless pursuit of passion to which I was not entitled.

We had met at a wedding; Anna a friend of the bride, me, a frat brother of the groom. No sparks flew between us. Ours was not a love that burgeoned with breathless passion but had grown neat and reassuring out of being fixed to the same backgrounds and the belief that we could make each other happy.

My eyes mist when I recall on our wedding day, Anna smiling at me when her father led her down the aisle of the church, how the pastor struggled to remember our names and interrupted the ceremony with a coughing spell. How I had ticked off our expenses to see if we could afford to buy the split ranch house, the rainy morning we had taken title of our new home and moved in that same afternoon. And about the way we had lived with mostly unfurnished rooms until my insurance business grew. The happy day we brought our twin sons, Tom and Tim home from the hospital, all those memories…

The truth was, after our sons were born our sex life sputtered. Knock-my-socks-off sex became higher on my list of desires than home-made brownies or having my boxers ironed, and while Anna was busy with mothering, I had traded creature comfort for passion—for women who did not roll to their side and fall asleep complaining of being tired to avoid having sex—women who were warm and exciting. Some of them I choose to forget. Most of them I cannot.

Tom was in bed with the flu, and I had taken Tim to see the Yankees Red Sox game. Returning to our car, I had met a neighbor in the parking lot and stopped to chat with him. I had let go of Tim’s hand and Tim had run ahead to where our car was parked when he was killed by a driver backing out of a parking spot.

I can still hear Anna’s pitiful scream, her face infused with outrage and grief as we had listened to the deep, apologetic voice of the emergency room surgeon telling us our son was dead.

You want the best for your children and that does not always happen.

Our son Timmy died. And I am the only one to blame.

I had tried to console Anna, but sometimes you cannot fix some things, and cannot make them better.

Anna retreated into a pervasive gloom and lassitude.

My son Tommy unable to forgive me, kept to his room, sat at the dinner table across from me each night, unwavering in his certainty that his brother’s death was my fault. In his eyes an aggressive and unfamiliar contempt I had to bear. When Timmy died, the carefree innocence in Tommy died too. Tom had learned that life was finite, he became an eight-year- old expert on sorrow, bearing the pain of his brother’s death, scowling and banging his bedroom door in demonstrations of anger. His childhood innocence abandoned and left with a sense of the loss of his twin brother that grew in weight day by day.

I should have persisted. I should have begged his forgiveness, but there was only guilt, a guilt that became a friction in our house.

But what could I say that was honest and true?  What apology could erase something that was already done? There were no words adequate to express my sorrow. I had tried every possible suggestion from Anna that might calm Tom and convince him- if not of my love for his brother, but the fact that I too, wished with all my heart that I had held on to Tim’s hand.

Could Tom not recognize my grief, my remorse? How every day of my life was filled with the adrenaline of rage with the resentment and anger at the driver who had backed into Tim, and with myself for placing my son in danger.

That vivid, terrible moment will always be with me. And my struggle to adjust to a world without Tim. I envied the tranquil consistency in the lives of my friends, shrank from their awkward attempts at consolation, their sympathy, unbearable.

Why did Tim die while I am still alive?

A wave of sorrow rises in me and threatens to break. I push it down. What is the use of piling up all the things I should or should not have done? But how can I not feel what I do feel?

Anna never mentioned all my mystical nights out spent at ‘business meetings,’ with the clients of my small insurance business. The fictions I created doubled, tripled. I know that it took no stretch of the imagination for her to get the picture. She wanted me to believe she did not know. But she knew when I came creeping into bed at two AM, she feigned sleep in order to avoid a confrontation. She knew when I awoke puffy-eyed and exhausted from tomcatting around. She knew. She had spent her life loving me, raising our family, trying to make our lives easier and better and I had cheated on her. Her posture changed whenever I entered the room, her silence meant she knew, her cheery smile meant she was hurt—never to release the question that was stuck in her throat, the why question she had never asked me. Guilt became my silent companion. I had not been a husband to her for a long time. We lived together politely.

How had I not attended to Anna’s sense of betrayal, the awful heartache I had caused her after our son’s death, I had thought cheating only involved myself. I wish I had been faithful. I wish I had made better decisions. I wish that the attention and money I had spent doting on those unimportant women had been spent with Anna. I wish I had taken her on the Caribbean cruise she’d day-dreamed about. I cannot remember the last time we had laughed together. I still feel a sting of shame, but I know it is much too late to wish any of these things, and rue the many mistakes that I have made:

And then there followed the nights that passed full of waiting and false hope while Anna lay sick and dying when I had felt the ability to better love my wife, yet unable to give her pleasure, just faith and kindness, her knitting needles and half-finished sweater she had been making for our son Tom waited in a basket by her bedside. Anna had once been a stocky, full-breasted woman and was now skin and bones. I had massaged her legs and back to try and ease the spasms she complained about, slept with my arms around her. Conversation came in fits and starts when she felt up to it, the painkillers making her words slow and heavy. Toward the end she seemed to forget that Tim was dead and called for both her sons.

“Are you in pain?”

“Not too much. The medication helps.”

“I know.” She looked at me as if we were still the same two people; the same newly married couple, as if nothing stood between our present and our past.

When I woke up one morning Anna was gone and, in my struggle to adjust to a world without her, I envied the tranquil consistency in the lives of my friends, shrank from their awkward attempts at consolation, their sympathy, unbearable. I try not to think too much about Anna as it only exacerbates my already broken heart; try to concentrate on the changeable things of today and tomorrow and not the unbearable yesterdays.

I wonder about the family who live in our home now. Have they taken down the basketball hoop in the driveway, fixed the hinge in the cellar door? Do they get along with our cranky next door neighbor Mrs. Smyth?

As late afternoon sun takes over the veranda and touches everything—I inch my chair into the remaining shade, enjoy the occasional gust of cool air that blows under the umbrella. Several old gents whose names I cannot retrieve, stroll past our table. I tick my chin forward in a friendly nod. In my head I skim through the alphabet. Al, Andy, Arthur … Sometimes this helps. But not now. I abandon the effort.

I turn my attention back to the conversation going on around me.

My neighbor, Sam McKay, is telling the group about a TV movie he watched last night. His voice is barely audible. Any little exertion leaves him gasping for breath. I lean in to hear him.

George Shell, a crusty old gentleman who finds fault with everyone and everything, struggles to stand. His knees give out an audible crack. Placing one foot in front of another, he launches himself out of the chair, takes slow, measured steps and leaves our circle to use the john.

Dave Frank, his eyes behind his glasses ringed in dark circles, stretches down to rub the scar on his calf, a memento from his service in Korea. Dave suffers from nightmare’s and it is his own screams that often wake him. Dave rarely talks about his war experiences but when he does there is a tremolo in his voice.

Jessie, our favorite attendant, approaches our group, rolling a cart that clatters and complains as it made its way to us. Our wrinkled faces blossom into smiles.  I cannot help but admire Jessie’s ample breasts. (I am still trying to outgrow that kind of thing).

Accustomed to this daily ritual, we examine the bounty on the cookie platter and wait for Jessie to dole out our drinks from a pitcher of fresh lemonade, served to us as if it were a magic elixir to resuscitate us from our failing hearts or fatal illnesses. We pull our masks down. Our knobby fingers grasp the paper cups.

Jessie leaves us and for a while there is quiet except for the slurping and munching.

“Or am I getting the plot mixed up?” Sam has asked continuing his narrative, his breath whistling in his chest. “Lately I get things mixed up.” Sam speaks very slowly. Sometimes I fear the afternoon will pass before he finishes a sentence.

“Nope, you’re absolutely right.” Larry, who has also watched the movie Sam is critiquing, assures him.

I nod, as if to agree with him so he will not resent my inattention. At some point, I nod off, my head drooping against my chest.

The patio door bangs shut and awakens me. I open my eyes and see Joe Burns cross the patio. Joe’s stride is less vigorous than usual. He usually moves quickly for a man of his age. He is usually all smiles and jokes. He brings vitality and good cheer to this place and is never moody or mean-spirited. Joe pulls out George Shell’s vacant chair, lowers himself into the seat and sighs. His sigh is full of despair.

He lifts his glasses to dab at his milky eyes with a sodden tissue, “Hello all. Sorry to be the bearer of bad news.” He looks at Sam, Dave, Larry, and me, his voice, a quiet monotone. “Eddie Riggs passed away this morning. Let us hope he’s gone to a kinder place.”

His news seems to suck the energy out of us. Except for the uneasy creak of someone’s chair, the click/hiss of Sam’s oxygen tank, there’s silence. Our hearts tighten with sorrow.

Larry Lowson, his hands trembling, says “Jeez! What a shame! How did it happen?”

Joe Burns slumps deeper in his seat, shakes his head.

“I don’t know,” Joe gives a windy sigh.

Larry Lowson leans forward to take a sip from his cup. A little dribble runs down the front of his polo shirt. The rest of us pretend not to see it. “Ed was a good man,” he murmurs.

Dave Frank nods in rare agreement.

Larry Lowson begins to mumble something what I think is a prayer.

Joe Burn’s words move through me like a sliver of ice. My hands sit in my lap like stones. I pull a tissue from my pocket and wipe a tear away. I do not want to believe this news although I know that here at The Bowers, all attachments are purely temporary— folks coming into our lives and leaving just as suddenly. Yet I am not prepared for Ed Riggs death. I feel anger tighten my chest.  I ask myself, why Ed? Ed had been a good pal of mine, one of the younger residents. What was he—seventy-four—five? He had been the kind of man everyone liked, always a vivid presence with a loud, infectious laugh and a great sense of humor and always talking about the beneficial aspects of even the worst situation. He had become a reason for me staying on this earth. We would sit in his room, and he would play the vinyl records he had collected by the performers of our youth, Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, Rosemary Clooney, Frank Sinatra and Anna’s favorite, Johnny Mathis. Ed had saved the albums because he considered them more meaningful than anything recorded today, and for a few hours we would immerse ourselves in the past.

I feel a burst of anger, partially directed to God, partly with myself, my thoughts stumbling over one another. I regret why I had not questioned, not seeing Ed in the dining room at lunch. I should have gone to his room to check on him. This realization comes too late. I wish I had. If only I had. Maybe… My soul hangs heavy with the thought. And now Ed is gone… Just like that.

“You okay? You don’t look so good,” Joe says.

“Yeah, I’m okay.” I say…

Conversation is now exhausted. We fall into a moody silence. We hear the opening notes of “Danse Macabre” coming from Dave Frank’s cell phone. He turns his chair away for privacy. I do not have a cell phone. The few calls I get or need to make are from the landline in my room.

The sun has been going down. It has grown windy on the patio. I drink the rest of my juice and place the cup on the table. I hear the creaking of bones as one by one each of us leaves the patio to change and wash up for dinner. Using my cane (the physical therapy has not helped my lower lumbar pain), I make my way back into the building. I enter the freeze of the air-conditioned lobby, the carpeted hallway which always smells of Lysol and a hint of lemon and pass the lecture room, waiting to be useful again. Getting to my room takes a lot of energy, like everything else I do these days. I pass the potted palms. Stephanie who works the reception desk looks up and waves to me. The staff is taught to be friendly and helpful.

The lobby is filled with members lounging in chairs, some bellowing into cell phones despite an ordinance requesting members keep a six- foot distance. I nod at them without speaking and clop my way along the hall. Step Shuffle Step. I pass a handyman carrying a sanitizer spray and stop to scan the bulletin boards daily exhortations, to walk slowly and use the handrail, keep our TV’s low after eight o’ clock, keep our doors unlocked while in the rooms. There is a notice announcing the movie scheduled for Saturday night, a re-run of Chicago. The usual daily dinner menu is posted. On the bottom is a small index card notifying the residents of the passing of Edward Phillip Riggs.

I reach my room out of breath, my hands shaking so badly I have trouble fitting the key in the lock. I open the door and shamble into the small sparsely furnished room I have been assigned, hear the door snick closed behind me. I wonder what Anna would have thought of this place I am now confined to, surrounded in my too chilly room by the few photos and mementos I have held onto from my past: a photo album, The American Family Reference Dictionary, Anna’s gold wedding ring. I am not against material pleasures but there is no space for them in this room.

I prop my cane against the chair beside the window, sit down on the edge of my narrow mattress lean forward, kick off my Bas Weejuns, strip off my socks and flex the stiffness out of my toes. I get up and go into the bathroom, take off my glasses and wash my hands and face. I am caught up at the sight of my reflection, the deep lines etched on my skin, the white stubble on my cheeks and chin where I have begun to grow a beard. I dry myself with a fresh towel that smells of clothes softener. I hang the wet towel on the rack, stuff my shirt and shorts in a laundry basket and take a clean T-shirt and boxers from the chest of drawers. I stoop to remove from the bottom drawer the navy cardigan Anna had knitted for me, and pull it on, pick up Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October. The plot is exciting and takes all my concentration and for a while I manage to forget why I am in this room. I read a few chapters before my eyes begin to blur and place the book back on the top of my night table.

The image of Ed’s genial face lingers in my mind: Rest in peace Eddie. I will find you soon.

I feel so horrifically alone.

The silence does not bother me; the emptiness does…

I feel an overwhelming desire to reach out to my son Tommy. It has been three months since I last heard from him and almost one year three since I have hugged my grandchildren. I dial Tom’s number.

“Oh, hello, Dad, I’m just on my way out. Is anything the matter?”

“Does anything have to be the matter for a father to call his son?”

“Well, you sound … I don’t know, a bit down.”

I took a shaky breath. “I am, just lost my best friend, Eddie Riggs.”

“Ooh. That’s too bad.”

His words fall lightly and don’t provide the warmth I need. He doesn’t ask about the details, clearly, he hasn’t the time. I realize my son really doesn’t care about some old dead crony of his father. He cares only about whatever it is he is rushing to, one less interruption taking up his time.

“How’s Michele?” I ask

“Busy with the girls…”

I hear a soft exhalation that may be impatience, annoyance, or both.

“Well, stay safe and give them my love.”

“Will do…”

 Each curt answer carries away a part of my heart. Seconds tick away. “Well, love you, Tommy. Be careful out there.”

“Bye, Dad.”

I hear a dial tone. He’s hung up. I am left with the receiver in my hand and nothing more to say.

From my bedroom window I see that the sky is darker now, bringing with it the movement of sullen clouds. Beyond the gated manicured lawn, the evening traffic is picking up. I watch the twinkling lights of the cars chasing each other on the parkway. I think again about Ed, begin to cry, beginning with a small sob, and ending up with a huge, body-shaking bellow.

A river of fatigue overruns my sorrow. I blow my nose, wipe away my tears and turn on the TV. The rising numbers of Covid-19 deaths world-wide continues to leave me stunned. Thank God several pharmaceutical companies have produced vaccines to fight this deadly virus. All of us here at the Bowers have been fully inoculated.

Living here at The Bowers costs a bundle. I am caught in a world less predictable and less controllable, an uncertain and unwelcoming future looming on my horizon if I outlive my savings. I have been lucky to so far, I have had pretty- good health, but who knows what can happen to me tomorrow. I picture myself sick and confined to a state hospital, my bare behind exposed in a backless gown.

It is what it is and there is not much I can do about it.

I call the front desk and ask for a dinner tray to be delivered to my room. I am in no mood to go to the dining room. I choose the pot roast with mashed potatoes. I ask for vanilla ice cream for dessert. Both are my favorites.

I hold on to this thought as if it is all I have left.

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