Bluestem Magazine Online, May 2018.
Walter sat up and listened attentively, his part was coming. The attorney coughed and cleared his throat.
“And lastly, to my caretaker, Walter Medlin, I leave the contents of my garage, except for the Volvo, which I am donating to Meals on Wheels.”
Walter’s gasp broke the silence in the stuffy room. Mrs. K.’s family sniffled and avoided eye contact with him as they shuffled out. The oldest son, John K. the Third, took a downcast Walter by the arm.
“I’m so sorry, Walt. Mom lost it in the end. I wish I could do something for you,” he said, hurriedly shoving an arm into a coat. “Whatever you don’t want in the garage, just take to the dump. We have to clean it out anyway for the new owners. We’ll pay you your hourly rate. Will that do? And by the way, we need the clean-up done by the end of the week.” John K. the Third looked at his gold watch. “That’s in two days. Right? Thanks, we will be in touch.”
Walter slumped to the parking lot behind the office building and got into his truck. He rolled down the window; November’s cold air slapped him awake. God damn sons of bitches. He didn’t know who was worse: stingy, ungrateful, demented Mrs. K. or her equally rotten, I’m-a-Big-Shot son. What did he know about anything? He hadn’t paid a visit to his mother in years. Walter had been the only friendly face, consoling her when she sat on her porch and cried. And this is what he got in return?
He rolled up the window, turned on the engine, waiting for the heat to come on. In his mind’s eye he made a tour of the garage’s contents and familiar smells: the rust of garden tools; oil-soaked cement where the tractor had been parked for years; soggy cardboard boxes filled with ancient board games; old pine shelving; seawater-soaked blankets; and a brand-new walker, ordered by Mrs. K.’s doctor, still in a box. A gift of a thousand dollars would have paid off his debts, or paid for them go somewhere nice, as Joyce had hoped, but the garage was filled with nothing except worthless shit. Whatever fit in his truck he’d take to the dump. They could fucking clean the rest of it themselves. He never wanted to see that fucking house again. The unfairness of it all sucked the life out of him. He had barely enough energy to drive home, let alone face Joyce.
At first their ten-year age worked to their benefit. Walt, in his twenties, needed someone to look after him and she needed to escape an abusive husband but, after ten years, their attachment was beginning to fray. He discovered his dependency shrinking and her neediness, stemming from an anxiety condition, increasing. Thanks to Mrs. K, and other odd jobs, he spent most of his days at work. Up until now it had kept him away from home where Joyce and her should-have tirades never failed to greet him at the door.
Joyce said Walter should have never have taken the job at Mrs. K.’s; even she knew it would be a disaster. He should have never lied about his criminal record and gotten fired at Walmart. He should have never let his brother take his family’s house in Union. On and on until she got tired and, without saying another word, put his dinner on the table. He’d eat in silence, each bite sticking in his throat, as if she had served up truth. And then later, alone on the couch, he’d have his usual dessert: a nice bowl of what-ifs.
Sometimes they were light and fluffy, like, what if he won the lottery? What if he had more hair? Lost twenty pounds? Or a girl at the grocery store winked at him? Sometimes they were heavy, sticky, hard to digest, no doubt like tonight’s would be. What if he had been born John K. the Third and not Walter Medlin, the son of divorced parents, shuttled back and forth between homes where love was worn thin, handed down like old clothes? What if they had not let him fail so miserably, drowning in the high waters of self-doubt? What if he had not taken that stupid dare and stolen a car in high school?
Walter pulled out of the parking lot and took the long way home on Route 17 through Warren. The sun had set at 4:00. He drove into the infinite winter darkness, inky and deep, as if the sky and sea had traded places. It was hard to see where he was going, but it didn’t seem to bother him tonight. What if he kept driving? What if something else, another life, was out there, waiting?
When his father broke his hip, Woods moved in to take care of him. Not so much out of love, but because Woods didn’t have any other place to go. His year-long disability payments had ended; he couldn’t afford to stay in the house he had been sharing with some of his “bad” high school buddies, the “rowdies.” They had supported his plan to fake the accident at the cement factory so he could collect disability. All he needed, Woods said, was a little time off, to figure out what to do with his life, because he had spent too many years not thinking about it, like everyone else. But instead of putting a plan together, he fizzled the months, and his payments, away. All he had left was the excuse of needing to move home to take care of his old man.
His father lived in a trailer park, having sold the family home a long time ago. Getting around a trailer was a matter of a few feet, but the old man insisted Woods do everything, like fetch his glasses from a nearby side table; turn the TV on and off, even though he could have used a remote; and practically feed him in bed. Both the blankets and his old man’s nightclothes were spoiled with food stains and smelled sour, like milk gone bad. The worst was having to drag his father into the small, plastic bathroom, soaked in the old man’s piss. Woods felt like all of this was some kind of vengeful payback for his reckless teenage years. Woods gave Marian an edited version of the past.
He and his father had never gotten along. Join the Coast Guard, like I did, his father said. No, the ocean makes me sick. Then become a law enforcement officer, like your brother. No, my brother makes me sick. Of course the ocean did not make him sick, and his brother only did sometimes. No, what made Woods sick was the feeling of being stuck. Woods explained things got worse when his mother left them. After that his father stopped talking to Woods at a time when Woods, a teenager, needed him to care. Now, ha-ha, Woods wanted to yell at his 75-year-old father, you need me. But the role reversal gave Woods no satisfaction.
“I have to get out of there,” he told her. “He is driving me crazy. He can’t hardly do anything without me.” Maybe he’ll slip, hit his head and die, but Woods kept that part to himself.
“Why don’t you get him a walker?” Marian suggested. “He can learn to get around on his own.”
Woods brightened. He liked Mar’s idea; it gave him hope. She worked as the Head Gardener at the Seacrest Retirement Community and knew a lot about these things. Unfortunately, he didn’t have the bucks to buy one. That is when he got his own idea.
Woods decided to go to the dump in Rockland; he occasionally “shopped” there to save money. To his amazement, there, in the middle of the Larger Items section, was a walker, its long legs sticking up in the air like a dead spider. Woods jumped out of the car and took a better look. The walker was in almost perfect condition, except for a dent or two that looked like someone might have just thrown it in there. Woods inspected the walker more carefully. He noticed a small, blue sticker: BetaCare, Dual Release, 5" Wheel, Specialty Model, $960.60. Who in their right mind would throw a piece of equipment away with a $900 trade-in value? They must have been blind. Or stupid mad.
Woods had a bit of a challenge figuring out how to collapse the damn thing—it seemed more complicated than it should be—but finally got it in the back of his car and hurried home. The dump had only been open for twenty minutes. Sometimes timing is everything, not believing his good luck. He knew he’d need just as much to get his father to use it. Woods took it home and presented the walker, trophy-like, to his father.
“What the hell is that?” he grumbled.
“It’s a walker, Dad. It helps you get around on your own. You’ll be a real whiz.”
“Take that damn thing back where ya found it,” he snarled, adjusting the pillows on the bed. “And stop looking so doggone pitiful about it.”
Woods was crushed but wasn’t going to give up.
“Look, Dad, see how it works?” He wheeled it from one end of the trailer to the other. The front wheels glided easily over the floor.
“It don’t look anything like a walker. Carol next door has one. Hers has little yellow tennis balls on the ends. This thing has wheels. Looks dangerous to me,” he growled.
“But, Dad,” Woods continued his testimonial, weaving the walker around the crowded space. “It has brakes. Brakes are good, not dangerous. You can stop yourself from falling. See?” Woods clutched the two blue levers on each side of the aluminum arms. The walker came to a sharp stop. “This is better than Carol’s. It cost more than nine hundred dollars!”
“That’s ridiculous. It looks as cheap as hell.”
“Come on, give it a try.”
“If you like it so much, why don’t you use it?” he smirked, pleased with his joke.
“Because I don’t have a bad hip and arthritis,” Woods smirked back. He watched his father’s eyes narrow.
“Yeah. You are perfectly healthy, healthy enough to go get a job and stop hanging around pretending you are taking care of me. Some excuse, boy. You just sit around all day and watch TV, except when you are out with that dirt-digging girlfriend. She pays for everything, doesn’t she? Shame on you.” His father took a deep breath, his face hot and flushed.
Woods felt his teeth grinding their way into his jaw.
“Dad,” he said in a flat, calm voice. “I want you to try it.”
“All right, all right, you sure know how to make me crazy.”
He sat up and swung his legs slowly over the side of the bed. Woods moved the small side table out of the way to make more room. His father leaned over and gripped the arms of the walker. He stood up and took an awkward step forward, his loose robe trailing behind him.
“See?” Woods beamed. “Now you can get to the bathroom by yourself. Next, the kitchen! Next, the grocery store!”
“Ha. I’ll end up just like Carol. Her son got her that walker, and she hasn’t seen him for a month. You just want to get out of here. You just want me dead.” His father grunted and took another tentative step. Woods reached out with an anxious hand to guide him.
“Wait, Dad. You have to keep your hands on the brakes, on the brakes, the blue levers,” Woods yelled.
“You think I’m deaf? I know, dummy.” He jerked his arm away. The walker, weighed down on one side, tilted and fell over. His father flew forward, out of Wood’s reach. His head struck the side table with a loud crack, his body folding on the floor.
Woods panicked. He didn’t know what to do first, call 911 or try to help him. He rushed to his father’s side. His body was heavy and limp but Woods managed to turn him on his back, his face turned to the ceiling. Woods kneeled and stared into his father’s face, searching for, praying for a sign of life. Accusation and blame stared back through cold, dead eyes.
Marian loved working at Seacrest. She believed it was her job to keep its residents healthy and happy by creating well-tended grounds filled with beautiful and colorful plants. She took it personally if one of the old ladies died. Her mother saw things differently.
“That’s ridiculous, Mar. You can’t help them. Those ladies are ancient, on their way to the grave. You’re just a gardener, if that is what you are calling this latest job. Too bad you weren’t smart enough to become a doctor.”
Her mother, like a prize fighter, lashed out with cruel jabs and killer looks, like the one she gave her daughter now in their pristine kitchen. In the past Marion avoided center ring, having discovered the futility of fighting back at an early age. But all that was changing; a new voice was emerging. She was sure the gardening job had something to do with it: the feel of warm soil in her hands, the smell of the ripe, wet earth, the perfume of rejuvenation.
“Mom, imagine lying in a small room, too old or too sick to move. And all you have is that one, small window, four panes of clear glass. But it’s more than that. It’s a frame, a painting of flowers, a picture of hope: spring bulbs, peonies in bloom. Summer annuals in their peak. Healing colors and smells.”
Her mother rolled her eyes and shook her head as she grabbed her purse and dashed out the kitchen door. Marian knew her response lacked punch but at least had integrity; she didn’t compromise herself with silence as she had before. It hadn’t been easy, growing up in the big house, left largely to fend for herself by a mother at war with her own misfortunes. Marion had struggled to find her way, taking one unrewarding job after another—sales clerk at Renny’s, waitressing at Maine Street Grille—until, thanks to a neighbor who needed help with her garden, she had finally discovered her calling, found her way.
This would be her last day of the season at Seacrest; most of the fall clean-up was done. She planned to stop at Plants Unlimited on the way and get a few more tulip bulbs to put in before the freeze. White for hope, red for love, and yellow for friendship; for the ladies to see from their windows, read them like a living poem.
She couldn’t discount Woods for the positive change taking place in her life; he did have something to do with her newfound spirit. Last summer he had followed her because she left her water bottle at the counter of the South End grocery store. He said it was going to be a hot day and she would need it, later telling her that was almost the truth. The truth wasI he thought she was neat and different-looking, wearing those funny pants with potholders sewed in for knee pads. Of all the so-called boyfriends she ever had, he was by far the most kind and gentle, even if he did seem pretty restless most of the time. When she told him how sensitive he was, he laughed and told her if only she knew.
“I’m different around you,” he confessed.
“Me too,” she confessed back. She liked how they took care of each other: saying nice things, listening to each other’s tales of woe. She imagined they were like two wounded animals licking each other’s wounds, giving each other advice and encouragement.
“Don’t be down. You are the lucky one, Mar. You live in a house with two incomes, and you don’t have to take care of your mother,” he said with a weak laugh.
“No, not really. My mom is never going to let me forget I was mistake and ruined her life. But I’m not going to let her ruin mine. Someday things will be different. I’m patient. Gardening teaches you that. To be patient.”
That conversation popped up in her head as she drove to work, so she was surprised to find Woods in the Seacrest parking lot. Small, white puffs preceded him as he paced back and forth by his car. She saw a walker on the sidewalk and wondered what it was doing there. Woods tossed the cigarette on the ground as she parked and climbed out of her truck. He looked pale, tired.
“Woods, what’s wrong? What are you doing here?” She zipped up her parka and hugged him. He pulled away, shivering, and held her at arm’s length.
“Let’s sit in my car. There’s something I need to tell you.”
“OK,” she replied, climbing in the passenger side. A large suitcase and a duffel bag sat in the back seat.
“Going somewhere?” she asked, trying to lighten his obvious dark mood. She had seen him like this before. She rubbed her hands together and blew on them.
“Mar, my father’s dead. I killed him.” His voice was barely audible.
“What? Impossible,” she whispered, leaning toward him.
“That walker.” He pointed. It stood alone on the sidewalk like an obedient child. “I got it for him. He didn’t know how to use the brakes, he fell, hit his head. By the time the ambulance got there, it was too late.”
Marian put an arm around his shoulders and pulled him close. “No, it was an accident,” she protested, gently patting his back.
“No, you don’t understand. As I watched the EMT guys put his body in the ambulance, all I could think was that I willed it to happen. I wished him dead.”
“What do you mean?”
Woods shifted away, indicating she should retrieve her arm, which she did.
“I can’t stay here. I’m leaving, Mar,” he said stiffly.
“When are you coming back?” She shivered.
“I don’t know. Walt, my friend from high school, he and I are going together. I sold my dad’s trailer. Walt sold his truck. We’re driving west until we run out of money.” Woods shrugged. “We’ll see what happens. We both want to make a new start.” He paused. “You could come with us, you know.”
Listening to his plans, she had pictured her own suitcase next to his in the back seat, felt the warm, westerly winds blowing on her face even before he mentioned going with him. Saying good-bye to her mother, leaving behind a trail of “you’ll be sorry’s,” would be easy enough. The hard part was Seacrest. The ladies. Her plants. The garden.
“Woods, I understand, given all you have been through, but I can’t come with you. For the first time in my life, I feel like I’m getting somewhere. I like my job. I want to find a place of my own, put down roots. And you are trying to find them,” she added quietly.
He leaned over as if to kiss her. Mar offered her lips but he brushed her cheek instead. She reached a hand to the spot where his cold lips had been, as if they had left a mark. Woods placed both hands on the steering wheel.
“Would you do something for me?” he asked, staring straight ahead.
“Sure, Woods,” she gulped, a breath catching in her throat. She felt like she was going to cry, not because he was leaving, but because of the sorrow in his voice.
“Get rid of the walker. Throw it away. It’s cursed. Someone must have thrown it away for a good reason,” he grimaced.
He turned on the engine and slowly turned his head to look at her, like it was painful to move. She took his silent smile as a parting gift. He was already gone. Marian sighed, got out of the car, and shut the door. She stood on the sidewalk next to the walker, the two of them saying good-bye. Woods rolled down his window and leaned out.
“Take good care of yourself, Mar,” he said. He quickly shut the window and backed out of his spot.
“You too,” she called as he pulled away. She watched his car turn out of the property and drive out of sight.
It had snowed a few days ago, a light dusting, a harbinger of winter’s blast; most of it had melted. The garden areas were soggy and splotched, black and brown spots where the sun hit and white patches of snow in the shade of the buildings. The staff had cleared the walkways, but it was too chilly for the ladies to come outside and talk to Marian as they did in the summer months. She missed the eager questions and conversations, the scent of Wind Song competing with the hydrangeas and Echinacea, the carefully combed white hairdos, but more so the unconditional admiration and appreciation, as if Marian were a flower herself.
Last summer, on Fridays, she and Woods would go to Crescent Beach after work. They both liked to watch the sunset and listen to the beach rocks rolling back and forth, raked by the retreating tide. She thought about going anyway, like a farewell to Woods, but she decided against it. The beach would be too cold and dark now. Besides, she didn’t need any more dates with sadness.
Marian walked across the damp grass toward the back of the property, bringing the walker with her. Next to the utility sheds, where they kept all the tools and tractors, she had built two compost bins this summer beneath large pine trees. The bins gave her a place to put what she had cleaned out of the garden; cuttings, weeds, even plants that didn’t make it found a home there. It’s the plant dump, Marian had joked to one of the ladies as she carted away a wheelbarrow full of green and brown stuff.
Marian, instead of tossing it to the wilds behind the bins, decided to plant the walker. She dug the aluminum legs deep into the loam. As a gardener she had learned that nature would put it to good use. In the spring a vine will grow, small green shoots will find their way.