by Thresher Grey
The extra two slices of bacon Charlie snuck at breakfast added exactly enough plaque. The three-hour plane ride had dislodged the hardened clump. The doctors would conjecture, his children would speculate.
Charlie sat at a bus stop. Noise rose up off the streets, sweating and crashing into the close corridors of shrieking building faces. Everything stank of urine. Charlie turned down his hearing aid. Nothing in Des Moines smelled like urine. He wondered if New York had always been harsh and clanging, and so thoroughly ammonia-soaked. He had been to the city before, in a different century. Charlie felt a slight headache. It bothered him that he could not call to mind the smell and sound of 1946 New York.
He clutched a neatly folded piece of paper, his eldest daughter’s address. Mary Elizabeth lived in an uptown condo that also smelled of urine. Urine, mixed with expensive vanilla candles. It was obvious, to everyone but Mary Elizabeth, that it was her precious baby Constantine’s fault. On her last visit to Iowa, Mary Elizabeth brought the arrogant Pug-Chihuahua mix along. She paid for two business class plane tickets. One for her, one for Constantine. Upon his royal arrival, the dog sniffed Charlie’s hand condescendingly, and pissed all over his favorite sofa. Mary Elizabeth had pretended to scold Constantine, and then lectured Charlie. He should, apparently, really have plastic coverings on the couches. Charlie quietly got revenge by throwing Constantine’s favorite chew toy into the neighbor’s yard. He watched with satisfaction from his second-favorite sofa as the little monster scratched the floor and howled while Mary Elizabeth fussed and tore apart her “doggy gobag” searching for it.
For his birthday this year Mary Elizabeth had suggested flying him out to the city. Sibling concerns about his flying cross-country alone had been brushed cursorily aside. Oh well, he thought. Maybe some traveling would take his mind off of the lonely house. His other unmarried daughter, LilyAnn, was the only regular guest. His other children lived at least a few hours away.
Charlie’s headache worsened. He thought crossly about the late bus. He didn’t think about the first time he saw his wife, and he wouldn’t again. He wouldn’t remember the professional blue dress with the starched collar. The shoes that clicked when she walked into the phone company offices with two of her girlfriends. They laughed and gossiped and floated like songbirds. She eclipsed the others. Tall, wide faced, her paralytic brown eyes gleamed from under pressed curls. She had only glanced up for a moment.
He could not forget the grinding motions of the manufacturing job he worked part time through his thirties, they were stored in his very muscles. The income had supplemented Charlie’s job at the phone company, and Marie’s part time work as a department store clerk. He couldn’t rise to a higher position at the company without college training. And Marie never even finished high school.
He would, and would be glad to, forget standing in front of the door to their house. Overcoat thrown over his arm and hat in hand he would wait, suspended, eyes closed. Two minutes reprieve. Then he’d walk in, to the screams and chattering of five little voices, and to the cloud of cigarette smoke. He’d shoo off the inevitable child or two that clung to his legs, and go over to the couch to kiss Marie hello. She had her ritual too. Glass of sherry, little bowl of green olives, or cheese and crackers, or little jellies and breads. The crystal ashtray that had been a wedding gift sat on the coffee table, seven to nine butts crushed into it. She would close her eyes and turn her face just enough to catch his kiss. She would claim exhaustion from her four-hour shift, and from minding the children after school, and retreat to the bedroom to nap until dinner. The smoky afternoon air turned Charlie the man into Charlie the monster. He tore through the house, chasing little princess and princes. When he caught one, the child would be thrown whooping up into the air and over a shoulder a captive that the others immediately rallied to save. As soon as they were all free, their alliances would crumble and they turned their energy on each other. Then Charlie was free to start heating up ingredients for dinner.
Charlie wouldn’t remember any German, but that had been true for decades. His immigrant parents had spoken it to him as a child, to his enduring embarrassment. He eventually refused to answer anything that was not asked in English. He had lost the language entirely by the time he was a teenager. His mother had not tried to speak German to his children. Once, though, she began to tell stories of the old country, farmer fairy tales and Gothic histories. Charlie had yelled at her in front of them. “WE’RE AMERICAN IN THIS HOUSE.” His wife had sent the frightened children to play and steadfastly calmed him down. She smoothed his hair back and held his hands and just looked at him for half an hour. Charlie had then quietly gone to his mother and apologized. She never told stories again, though.
Charlie tried to wipe his forehead. His head pounded and his senses dulled, as if he’d been drinking. His limbs refused to respond to his directions. Charlie tried to speak, to ask for help. He couldn’t remember what he was doing. The confused sounds slurred out of his mouth. A few people standing nearby averted their eyes. Charlie tried to stand, and crashed to the pavement, half his face twisted down in a horrible grimace. The others waiting for the bus began to mutter.
“Is he alright?”
“Should someone call 911?”
His neurons tried to fire their way out of suffocation, signaling frantically, repeatedly, for someone, anyone, to recognize that they were dying. The other clusters looked on helplessly, firing in panic and solidarity. The network went down. The rest of the brain, lit up by the unaffected groupings of neurons, flashed again and again. A solemn light show across the night sky, highlighting the loss, the burnout constellation. Charlie blacked in and out of time. Flashes surfaced briefly before vanishing forever.
He stood in his best suit, unflinching at the rain, at his mother’s funeral. It had poured, and even the forested roads leading to the old graveyard were mud-covered and slippery. His youngest grandchildren had to be taken to their parents’ car and quieted. They would never remember meeting his mother.
Charlie stood in the October afternoon chill. He shivered, terrified and soaring, as he queued in the recruitment line. Rehearsing again the details of his forged identification, the one that said he was twenty. He had looked twenty at seventeen. But if he tripped on a detail they would have sent him home, the home where his mother, unaware, set a place for him at dinner. Scar tissue made up approximately twenty percent of Charlie’s skin. Physical, irrefutable proof of his time as a marine. He could never entirely forget. But the paper worn smooth from his touch, the electric purpose he could feel coursing through the young men around him, the darkening sky, he wouldn’t remember.
Someone was holding Charlie’s hand. Or at least he thought so. It reminded him briefly of rewarmed cafeteria food and mass quantities of disinfectants, the unmistakable and enduring smell of the hospital. Charlie saw shrouded glimpses of bedsides, and kissing arthritic hands, and fragile murmurs, and bereavement pamphlets. He might remember painting her fingernails when she could no longer do it herself, but only when roused by that grim and wondrous hospital smell. Always violet. Marie’s amaranthine nails; ineffable evidence of half a century, their half century. But he remembered that his wife was dead.
Charlie used his undershirt to wipe the sweat from around his eyes. Leaving the lawn mower, he waved to the mail carrier and crossed the yard to the mailbox. A sheet of coupons, the electric bill, something from his wife’s unbearable cousins. And a large letter, in a very large soft envelope. It felt heavy. Charlie turned it over to the direction. It was addressed to Ms. Mary Elizabeth Westing. A University seal accompanied the return address. It was an acceptance, he could tell. Tears rose to Charlie’s eyes. He stood on the lawn clutching the envelope to his sweat-stained chest.
Sirens wailed their way into Charlie’s fevered memories. They grew louder until he felt himself being lifted off the ground. He passed out.
He opened his eyes to a bright room. The five people sitting around straightened up and leaned towards him, conversation left hanging open in the air. Mary Elizabeth got up and said she’d get the doctor. Charlie tried to speak, but the words came out confused and unintelligible. Laurie, who was sitting closest to the bed, gently touched his shoulder.
“Don’t try to say anything dad. The doctor said that you might need some speech therapy. Do you know what happened?”
Charlie shook his head, looking helplessly at his daughter. Laurie’s wide brown eyes were surrounded by laugh lines. Thomas, in his booming voice, said, “Dad you were kidnapped by aliens.”
“Shut up Tommy.”
Joe snorted with laughter and LilyAnn chuckled. Laurie continued, “You’re in the hospital. The doctors say you had a stroke. You were at the bus stop yesterday and you fell down”
“Why the hell was he even taking the bus?”
“Mary Elizabeth couldn’t be bothered to pick him up?”
Laurie ignored the disapproving murmurs.
“Someone called an ambulance and they brought you here. You were in and out of consciousness, and they put you on a lot of medication. Do you understand?”
Charlie nodded. He struggled to say “you,” then managed “all, hospital?” Joe, clearly confused, laughed uncomfortably. Laurie answered, “Of course we all flew out when we heard dad.”
Mary Elizabeth returned, leading a gaggle of doctors. She immediately started fussing with the pillows and yelled, “How’re you feeling?”
Two hours of his doctors and his children loudly trying to talk over each other later Charlie finally got a chance to rest. The nurse had brought him some pudding, and Mary Elizabeth even threatened to bring Constantine to cheer him up. The flock of white coats had departed, and his children had drifted off to the cafeteria so he could get some sleep.
Charlie woke to the sound of muffled conversation outside his door.
“What was he doing at the bus stop?”
Mary Elizabeth responded, “He apparently forgot where he was going and just sort of wandered there.”
“He could have gotten really hurt. He should never have come alone.”
Mary Elizabeth continued, ignoring LilyAnn, “He lost all control of himself. He should probably wear things for, you know, incontinence, so it won’t happen again. I mean, I got to the hospital and he was blathering, and just reeked of pee. Talk about embarrassing.”
“HE HAD A STROKE,” said Laurie.
“Yes, and he’ll probably have another. We need to take precautions. Maybe get him full-time help.”
Thomas and Joe, at the same time, said, “He can’t afford that.”
“I can’t listen to this.”
“Get off it Laurie. Are you going to go live with dad and take care of him?”
Charlie concentrated on the drip of his IV. The sound echoed through the room.
“I have the kids! What’s your excuse?”
“My job is here. Do you really think he could handle the stress of moving to the city?”
Drip. Drip. Drip.
“That’s what I thought. Joe and Tommy have families. LilyAnn travels for work four months out of the year.”
“It’s not right.” He could hear Laurie stomping off down the hallway.
Charlie sat quietly in bed. He looked down at his fleshy and brown-spotted hands, listening to his children discuss the cost of nursing homes.
Thresher Grey is a short story writer and essayist living in Chicago. She studied creative writing and English at New York University, and recently had a piece published in Stories from the World of Tomorrow: The Way the Future Was, an anthology of short science fiction.