By Bonnie James Glover
It is the day that the visiting nurse will come and he is not happy. When she arrives there is no escaping her good will. She pokes and prods his body, all the while spinning yarns about a life and a family that he vaguely pictures through half closed lids. He pretends he is sleepy, hoping she will leave sooner. Her goodness is like a bad tooth, plaguing him from the moment she enters his house.
He grunts at her when she asks a question.
“Is that a yes or a no, Mr Bagley? I can’t understand you.” She leans in close, smiling invitingly. Tell me more, she beckons with her wide gray eyes and nurse’s brow, furrowed. She continues.
“Have you had a bowel movement in the last twenty-four hours?” She is holding his arm, wrapping the blood pressure cuff around his under-toned muscles. Another grunt.
“Mr Bagley, why do you make it so hard for me to do my job? Why can’t you answer? I know you can speak.”
His eyes follow her as she begins to pack up. Her hands shove things into her travel bag: the stethoscope, thermometer. She is leaving a half-hour early. He wants to take it back, his bad temper and meanness but he doesn’t know how. When she gets to the door, she pauses to look at him again and he tries to sit straighter in his chair as if her leaving has not affected him in the slightest. The door shuts, not with a bang, but with a whispered hiss and he relaxes his tight shoulders, telling himself that he is better off without the bad tooth for company.
Later, he lies in the darkness, breathing deeply, eyes open, drifting from one shadow to another. His thoughts are meaningless with no potential beyond the moment. He had planned on crying. But the tears don’t come although he waits, feeling the heaviness in his chest, pressing downward and upward at the same time.
He takes deep breaths. Slowly, he moves his hands. Placing them in the middle of his torso, where he feels the sharpest psychic pain. From deep within, deeper than his bones, deeper than his arteries. He thinks of his favorite tie, the one that shows a roll of toilet tissue in a bathroom. And smiles. It had arrived days after he suffered excruciating diarrhoea, followed by painful constipation. Side effects common to chemotherapy patients. The depiction, at first startled, then amused him, sending tears down his cheeks. Hilarity mixed with sadness and a touch of self-loathing. “My, oh my,” he had whispered, wiping at the tears, even as his hoarse laughter echoed off the surrounding walls, “My, oh, my.”
With the tie in mind, he falls sleep before the sun rises. Slumber looses the demons that sought to embrace him, eases the constriction in his chest. Lines fall away from his mouth and forehead for two hours.
He pulls himself up and shuffles to the closet. He grips the doorknob. Redemption Ephrom Bagley, “Dempsey”, begins his day as he always has, by choosing his clothing.
Always meticulous, even now, having lately celebrated seventy years, Dempsey desires neatness if he cannot recapture youth or health. His fist brushes a pair of gray, wool slacks on a hanger, near an off-white cardigan that many years ago caught his daughter’s eye at Filene’s Basement. While he sniffed men’s cologne at the counter and smiled sweetly at the buxom young clerk, Stephanie, his only child, purchased the sweater that settled squarely on his shoulders and contrasted with his dark skin and flat brown eyes. Holding it against his chest, Stephanie smiled and the clerk took a deep breath and stuck a business card in his hand with her telephone number etched in red. At the memory, a sigh slips from his mouth. He thinks of the clerk and his surprise at her supervision in bed. It was so uncomfortable. Made him feel old when he could not contort his body to meet her needs. He never saw her again.
His eyes linger, stroking the ties in the closet. The ties are by varying degrees serious and hilarious. They were not from Stephanie. They were from his lover, Carole. For every milestone, for every important event or holiday, she’d sent ties. Twenty years of ties. Bowling ties that had a slot for the tail in front instead of in back, the yellow fuzzy tie for Easter 1999 that had the down of a chick, the tie that talked and asked you not to spill, the hot chilli pepper tie, interspersed with small laptop computers. She loved to send ties.
Sitting, he slowly manoeuvres his legs through the gray slacks and seeks the black leather belt from below the foot of the bed. As he pulls the belt through the loops, Dempsey notes, without sentimentality, that he can cinch the belt two more notches since last week.
He slips on soft wool socks and doeskin slippers that Stephanie sent to him for his last birthday. The exertion is too much and he has to sit for a coughing spell that makes it impossible to do anything except hold the pee in his bladder.
Once dressed, he leaves his bedroom and drifts into the kitchen. The house itself is small, less than 1,200 square feet but he doesn’t need a lot of space. There is only him. Has been for many years. When he first moved, he didn’t have any plans for the long or short term. Stephanie always had plans.
“Dad, let’s get you some big chairs. We’ll put them by the window. And some wind chimes. Maybe at the back door. They’ll sound really cool. Wait.”
He’d laughed then and pulled one of her braids. Laughed because he could barely afford the money he paid her mother in child support. Laughed because, in those days, he used his perfect white teeth and clear sun-drenched skin to eat lunch with women who paid the tab because otherwise, the pain of hunger woke him during the night. Stephanie dreamed of wind chimes and he dreamed of eating.
Eventually he did get the chairs. Along with an eclectically cheap set of surrounding furniture that looked exactly like what it was – every one else’s throw-a-ways. A large wood table dominated the living room with a sofa that Stephanie hated because it was green.
“Oh, Dad. It’s not even forest green. It’s puke green.”
There was a picture window in the living room and he placed the fluted wing chairs, one on each side, to catch the sunlight. His chair has an end table with an old fashioned telephone. He is pleased each time he holds its weight in his hands.
It is barely eight o’clock in the morning when he sits down in his chair to wait for a decent hour. Last night while he tried to think of nothing and began to think of emptiness, he made one conscious decision. It was time. He would call. Tell her to come to him. Because of all his dreams, all his desires at seventy, he wishes to see Carole once more. At nine-thirty he listens to the whirring sound of the rotary phone as it spins in a circle around the dial. It is difficult using his right index finger, so he switches. As he waits, he realizes he will need to replace his old telephone soon. His fingers no longer dial accurately. The tight metal rings slice into the tips and sides of his swollen digits, creating a burning sensation where there is still feeling.
“Hello, Carole, this is Dempsey.”
There is a small pause, not significant. He hasn’t called in years.
“Dempsey, what a surprise. How are you?”
“Not good, Carole. That’s why I called. I want to see you.”
He hears her caught breath. Another pause.
“Where are you, exactly?”
She uses his post office box. That is where she sends the ties. He explains how to get to his house. Before he hangs up, she makes him promise to hold on until she gets there.
“Carole, it’s bad but I’m not dying right at this very moment. I didn’t want to wait that long to see you – I wanted to be in my right mind so we could talk.”
“I’ll be there day after tomorrow. Is there anything you need?”
Knowing he faces death makes him more honest than he has ever been.
On the telephone with her he has leaned forward, gripping the receiver despite the sharpening pain he feels in the swollen joints of his fingers. Hearing her voice, picturing her, longing for the sight and smell of her again makes him weak. The aching, unrelenting distress in his bones, recedes, like white noise. The connection makes him forget. He let her hang up first and then slowly places the phone in its cradle, the air trumped from his chest, his strength gone. He vaguely remembers thinking of the day he would have to make this type of call. But the words have not flowed from his lips with ease as he imagined they might. Each short syllable felt like a rock dropping from a steep precipice, mirroring the time and distance between them.
“Ow,” he yells peering at the visiting nurse with a scowl. She doesn’t apologize or seem interested in his display. “You didn’t have to stick me that hard.” Today her air was different, more serious. She hasn’t tried the small talk, the gossip about her family.
“Oh, so you do talk?”
“Yes I talk, when I got something to say.”
She raises an eyebrow but continues to work without stopping. “Today we need some blood so I’m going to have to stick you again.” He imagines he sees a smile at the corner of her mouth before she asks which arm he prefers her to pierce. When she finishes, he rises to his feet and escorts her to the door, slowly.
“Mr Bagley, I think you should reconsider the walker. You’re having trouble with your mobility. It...” He cuts her off, waving a hand within inches of her nose. He wants to cuss but contents himself with a murmured “offey.” Her gray eyes narrow into slits and she leaves the house, shoes making noisy, angry squishing sounds as she trudges down the steps.
The morning of Carole’s arrival, he stands in the bathroom and stares at himself in the mirror. Thinner now. More gaunt. Much more gray. A line or two on his brow. Lips the same, full and wide, formed like a slash across the bottom half of his face. He turns to the side and quickly faces forward again. The sight of his slightly stooped shoulders depresses him. God, he doesn’t feel like seventy. He thinks many of the same thoughts and does much of what he did when he was fifty. It simply takes him longer. And it hurts.
The first tie came New Year’s Eve 1980. Examining it, he wondered at her taste and thought it might be one of the jokes that Carole was fond of playing. It was a psychedelic tie, consisting of little egg-shaped figures brightly woven through the fabric. It had splotches of purple, green and red as well as yellow and orange. He sat back and held it in front of the light, assessing its ugliness from all angles. What would possess someone to design a tie so hideous? But he didn’t throw it away. Instead, he put on a pair of midnight blue pants, a starched white shirt, a blue sport coat with gold buttons and then, the tie. He was a hit with all the females at his office party when he lied and told them that his daughter sent it to him and that he had to wear it. One woman whom he had once labeled as cold was so emboldened after their tie conversation that she pressed herself against him in a dimly lit hallway and stroked his balls. He quickly moved away. The image of Carole noosed around his neck.
Dempsey tells himself to settle down and not worry. That she will not be the same either and that maybe she will stoop in some places too. He coughs, opening the front door to a surly morning, waiting for the gray-blue sky to open further and release the sun. Staring at the small index finger of land surrounding his two-bedroom frame home, Dempsey feels disappointed. All he has to show for seventy years is this little house on a mound of dirt and grass that he can no longer care for.
The grass, nearly dead, first expressed its demise with patches of yellow, strategically covering small areas. When he noticed it he panicked, as he had when he initially noticed gray hairs sprouting from his temple in his late forties. Now the yellow, scorched quality of the ground is familiar and he wills his eyes to skim rather than examine too closely its insidious death.
In short-lived moments he allows himself to entertain a fantasy of himself, hose in fisted hands, watering daily, lawn rejuvenated and his hair, unaccountably, returning to its youthful texture and color. His commonsense left one day and he tried to water the largest patch of dead grass he could find. After two minutes, he abandoned the hose and walked slowly into the house with an understanding that his death was imminent and that certain things could not be changed.
At forty he had been optimistic about the possibility of rebuilding his life. When his wife told him she was pregnant, he packed his bags and moved out, self-righteous in his indignation. He had told her from the beginning that he did not want children. Not even one. Separating was easy. It was all very civilized, totally unemotional on his part. Then the child, Stephanie, arrived. And she became a walking and talking complication in his otherwise uncomplicated life.
Dempsey kept her for a long weekend for the first time when she was three. They were going to go to church. She was in a smart yellow sun dress with yellow ribbons in her hair and white patent leather shoes adorned with small daisies. Minutes before they left the house, her brow furrowed and she began to cry, copious tears and snot running from her nose.
“Daddy, Daddy, I so sorry, I pee-peed in my new panties.”
Dempsey stood for a moment, holding her hand, not knowing exactly what to do, staring at the floor in dismay. He gently led her to the bathroom and cleaned her up, drying her bottom with the one spare towel he owned and wiping her face with a dainty handkerchief she had stuck in her daisy purse that matched her shoes. He smoothed her beribboned hair and began to rub lotion on her chin, cheeks and forehead.
Stephanie stopped crying and stared at him solemnly.
“Is you mad at me?”
The only words he managed were, “No, it’s all right.” Dempsey couldn’t bring himself to press her small length to his side or bend to kiss her even though he felt an urge to do both. Her distress almost brought him to tears. As he silently cleaned her, his mind and heart panicked, each inventorying the other to pinpoint when, why and how this person had come to mean so much to him. He was forty-three and a father in love with his beautiful, baby girl.
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QLRS Vol. 2 No. 1 Oct 2002