by William Michaelian
On an icy January morning, while waiting for his daughter’s weekly visit, the old man watched an impatient wind recruit the few remaining leaves from the edge of the parking lot, and herd them along the sidewalk in front of his apartment window. Brittle from the cold, skeletal and thin as a veil, the leaves skidded on the concrete, until, one by one, they fell wearily from ranks and were left behind to die, helpless, battered, and alone.
It was warm in his room, but the outdoor scene made him shiver. It had been more than a week since he had seen the sun; each morning, the sky was the same dull, uniform gray, and looked like the inner film of an eyelid that had closed itself upon the earth. Old as he was, and unable to get out on his own, the weather made life feel like a curse, a cruel exercise without direction or promise.
Instinctively, he tugged at his sweater and felt for the buttons. If he had still been living in his own home, his beloved two-story house on Laurel Street, he would have gone to the wood box on the porch for an armload of dry sycamore. But here, in his sensible, energy-efficient apartment at the Beverly Center for Adult Living, all that stood between him and the elements were a floor vent and a brown sweater he had never really liked.
The facility had been chosen for him by his daughter, who lived with her husband and family in the neighboring town of Pinedale, in a high-priced home overlooking a dry river bed. In return for his monthly signature, good for two thousand five hundred seventy-five dollars, he was granted a small bedroom and living room, a regular change of sheets, cursory medical checkups, and a shower so tiny it gave him claustrophobia. He was forced to take his meals in the main dining hall, with people he neither knew nor liked. Even getting to his seat was an ongoing challenge: wherever he turned, he was confronted with a tangle of walkers and wheelchairs. Pinned to the wreckage were lopsided bags of pale, withered flesh, dried-out carcasses that resembled sausage casings more than human beings. Successfully navigating this geriatric obstacle course made lunch feel like a prize. But the journey was often so depressing that he reached the table without an appetite. For the next hour he was trapped, and had to endure the stammering and spilling of his dining neighbors, and the too-loud voices of distracted, underpaid employees urging their charges to eat.
He turned on the television, and sat down on the edge of the bed in time to see a young woman with a wavy abundance of reddish-brown hair put a large spoonful of cereal into her mouth. Though she was much younger, the woman’s perky insincerity reminded him of his own daughter. She had been that way since he could remember, a pretty little liar who always arrived on the scene after the work was done. It was no surprise when she married a man for his money, forming a trite, legal relationship that resulted in two sons and an annual cruise on the Caribbean.
At eleven o’clock, when she still hadn’t arrived, the old man took a walk in the corridor outside his apartment. He opened his mailbox, which was near the main entrance, and found an advertising circular. He crumpled it on the spot and gave it to the receptionist, who smiled up at him and nodded. He tried, but couldn’t remember the last time he had been shopping.
After waiting a few minutes in a chair by the door, he decided to ask the receptionist what day of the week it was.
She told him it was Thursday, and added, “Is Vicki coming today?”
“Yes. She should be here by now. I hope nothing’s happened to her.”
“I’m sure she’s fine. Do you want me to call her for you?”
“Maybe you’d better.”
After finding the number on the computer, the receptionist picked up her phone and dialed.
“There’s no answer right now,” she said. “She must be on her way. I’ll try again in a few minutes.”
The old man walked back to his room. When he opened the door, he found someone vacuuming the carpet.
“Almost done, Mr. Weaver.”
“I said, almost done.”
The old man forced himself to smile, but inside he was angry at the invasion of his privacy. He turned around and walked back down the corridor.
“Henry? How are you today?”
“I saw you by the door earlier. Is Vicki coming?”
“Yes. She visits on Thursday.”
“Nice lady. You about ready for lunch?”
“Sure. It’s almost noon.”
“I guess I’m ready, then.”
“Do you want me to take you?”
“I can manage.”
“Okay. Just let me know if you need any help. That’s why I’m here, Henry.”
He started off in the direction of the dining hall.
“Hello, Mrs. Wright.”
“Looks like winter is upon us.”
“My Ralph hated this weather.”
“Oh, did he?”
“The cold made his nose run.”
“It’ll do that.”
“I washed enough hankies in a single winter to last a normal man a lifetime.”
“I’ll bet you did.”
“He always wore a shirt without sleeves. Even during the winter.”
“He must’ve been tough.”
“He died of pneumonia. Here, just down the hall.”
The old man nodded.
“Left me alone. He always told me he’d go first. Isn’t Vicki here yet?”
“No, not yet.”
“Not sick, I hope.”
“No, just busy. She’ll be here this afternoon.”
“You’re lucky you have someone to visit you.”
Mrs. Wright looked down into her lap. She fumbled with the small pillow that was resting on her legs, folded her hands, and placed them in the center, like a school girl. The person pushing her wheelchair, a young, overweight blond woman, said, “Are you ready to go now, Eva?”
“Yes. Good-bye, Henry.”
“Good-bye, Mrs. Wright.”
When he reached the dining hall, it was five minutes before twelve. The room was already full. Those residents of the Beverly Center for Adult Living who were able, some in wheelchairs, others of their own power and volition, were wedged like puzzle pieces along several rows of tables. Some were waiting for their lunches to arrive; others, lost and forlorn, were only waiting. The sight turned his stomach. The smell of macaroni and cheese hung on the air. Drifting in from the kitchen, it coated the walls like a humid jungle breath.
He started through the yawning double-doors, then stepped back. The dining room felt and looked like the deck of a ship being tossed at sea. He tried again, once, twice, each time trying to make himself stay inside. But he couldn’t.
He stood in the hall, waiting to catch his breath. If he wanted to eat, there was no choice but to go into the dining room. And he knew he should eat, even without hunger, or motivation, or interest. Food meant life. Macaroni, starch, cheese, salt, crackers, and peas — were what he needed to go on living. And it was his responsibility to stay alive, to be there when his daughter arrived, and to ask her about her two boys, who were studying to be certified public accountants. John and Tom. There was a rhythm to be satisfied, a calling that had to be answered. Vicki and John and Tom, and the boys’ father, Eugene. He would rather be served a fresh cucumber, or a cold slice of watermelon, but no one, no one, had the right to interfere with the rhythm of life. He was here now, and it was his duty to eat macaroni and cheese, and to smile at those less fortunate around him, and see if there were some way he might be able to brighten their day. Because he was lucky. Because he still had his own apartment, and could walk, and didn’t have a tube in his nose, or a mask on his face, or needles in his arms.
He went inside for lunch.
At one-thirty, after brushing his teeth for his daughter’s visit, he put on the slippers she had given him for Christmas. They were tight, but he appreciated the fact that they had soles. If he didn’t feel like wearing shoes, he could use his slippers to go after his mail, or to take short walks in the building.
At two o’clock, still waiting, he became drowsy. Sitting up in his chair, he fought to keep his eyes open, but he soon fell asleep, with his chin resting against his collar
His nap lasted an hour.
As soon as he opened his eyes, he realized the lighting in the room had changed. The sun was out, and its golden rays were shining in through the window. He stood up and smiled. A bird fluttered by.
At three-thirty, he took another walk. When he reached the library, he thought about going in to read the newspaper, but was afraid his daughter wouldn’t be able to find him. He went inside long enough to look at the stained glass window, and to admire the sunlight as it was transformed into patches of red and blue on its way to the floor.
At four o’clock, waiting by the front entrance, he realized that his daughter wouldn’t be coming that day after all. She never visited him that late in the afternoon.
A different receptionist had come on duty. When he turned around and walked past the desk, she said, “Good afternoon, Mr. Weaver.”
“Good afternoon, Trish.”
“How’s everything with you?”
“Fine. The sun’s out.”
“Isn’t it beautiful?”
“The most beautiful thing in the world,” the old man said.
At five-thirty, just before it was time to go back to the dining hall for the evening meal, his telephone rang.
“Dad? It’s Vicki. I can’t make it in today. Is that all right?”
“Of course it’s all right. I’m fine.”
“I’ll come tomorrow. Okay?”
“Sure. If you have the time.”
“How does ten-thirty sound?”
“It sounds fine, Angel.”
The next morning, the sky was gray again. The old man put on his slippers, and started to wait.
William Michaelian’s newest releases are two poetry collections, Winter Poems and Another Song I Know, published in paperback by Cosmopsis Books in San Francisco. His short stories, poems, and drawings have appeared in many literary magazines and newspapers. His novel,
A Listening Thing, is published here in its first complete online edition. For information on Michaelian’s other books and links to this site’s other sections, please go to the Main Page or visit Flippantly Answered Questions.