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.
He moves laboriously and picks the morning paper from the wedged-in spot between the hedges he and the paperboy have politically agreed on after a number of quarrels, and sits down to a cup of black coffee to wait on Carole. He drifts off to sleep. He dreams that he and Carole are young and that she has decided to stay and that Stephanie comes to live with them in a house by the water. Both Carole and Stephanie float in his dream, wearing diaphanous white dresses that remind him of church and angels. He is dressed in all black, tall, thin and haunted looking. Black tie around his neck, decorated with green neon skeletons, mouths agape in the terrible manner of Munch’s “The Scream”. He is trying to speak with them both, trying to tell them that he is sorry he can’t say the words they desire to hear. But the closer he gets to Carole’s diminutive figure, the more she floats away, until only Stephanie is left. Stephanie stands next to him for a moment, her height comparable to his six-foot frame and he wonders at her self-composure, at the fact that he has fathered her. He reaches a hand to touch her face, so like his own. He opens his mouth but before he can empty the words into her ear, she pulls back from him, just like Carole. In his sleep he lurches from the chair and clutches his heart that pounds rapidly with nervous flutters. His forehead, beaded with a cold sweat, sinks into the beige, short pile carpet that decorates the living room floor. He stays there for quite some time, too anguished to move.
Stephanie was all for the ties. She thought her father bought them for fun and encouraged him to wear them whenever he met any of her teachers. Her mother was not so impressed. She squinted at the one that showed the Eiffel Tower awash in crimson and gold.
“Dempsey, are you all right? I’ve never seen you wear a tie like that before.” He watched her wrinkled nose and the way her eyebrows raised as if looking and smelling a distinctly malodorous object. He laughed. They had not exchanged pleasantries for some time. He found he liked the attention the ugly ties engendered, good or bad.
Dempsey opens the door to a flurry of movement and stares down at the small woman of sixty, dressed in lilac, his favorite color. He thinks, after all these years she still remembers. He holds the door briefly and wonders if he dares to embrace her but she beats him to it and throws her body into his arms, even as there is a possibility of snooping neighbors. He hugs her as tightly as his arthritic arms will allow and breathes deep her scent. Luxuriates in her touch. Soft, sweet, powdered. Changed yes, but still the same.
The first time he saw Carole, Dempsey kept glancing over in the next lane where she was with her girlfriends, laughing and drinking beer. When it was her turn, he noticed her face, plastered with drunken intent but so good-natured, so inviting, that he had to smile. She was much younger. He could tell even from a distance. Without thinking he walked over and watched her bowl a perfect strike and collapse on the floor with the giggles as her friends screamed in disbelief. He was near enough that a few more paces didn’t make any difference and before he had a chance to analyze why he desired to, his hand reached down to help her off the floor. There was no hesitation on her part but she did appear flustered.
“You’re welcome. Do you bowl like that all the time?” He felt stupid.
“Nope, only when I’m drunk.”
“I see. I think I might have to try that trick.”
“Well, you need to be very, very careful. Not everyone can handle it.”
He felt self-conscious. Her friends were staring. He could smell the beer on her breath but chose to concentrate on her eyes, which were light brown and soft, set within medium hued skin, the color of rich toffee.
He smiled then, knowing very well the extent to which his teeth, beauty and height attracted women.
He sat her down but came back to chat with her three times during the course of the night. The most he recalled of their conversation was that she was witty even while drunk.
“You look good,” he now whispers hoarsely. The sight of her, still loving, still Carole, chokes his insides and makes him think of dying soon.
She stands back, searching, his face, his body. He watches her mouth. In the old days she would have told him he looked good too, “good enough to eat.” But she doesn’t say that to him today. Her lips fold together and she remains quiet. She moves forward and touches the tie before she hugs him once more.
“Thanksgiving 1987,” he murmured in her hair.
“You sent this tie to me for Thanksgiving 1987.”
The lower half was shaped like a turkey, feathers cut in a wide arc, dropping just at the belt line. The neck was long and painted red while the head, thimble-sized, sported an enormous, bright yellow beak. The eyes, plastic bubbles with small black dots, moved whenever he moved. In captions above the turkey’s head were the words, “gobble, gobble.”
He spent Thanksgiving 1987 alone at a tavern on Montgomery Street, not to far from his home. The waitress asked if the “gobble, gobble” meant that he ate pussy. He still remembered his reaction, strong righteous indignation on the outside and a stiff dick in his pants. He went home alone to watch late night television and think about Carole and why she cursed him with ties.
They sit in the kitchen under bright fluorescent lights and he serves her Earl Grey tea and toast with orange marmalade. He went to the store to look for strawberry preserves, her favorite, but he forgot his glasses and refused to ask for help. The small lines around her eyes and mouth are distinctive, as are the fine gray hairs that sprout from her forehead and fan about her oval face. Her hands, once plump, now thinner and wrinkled, grips the cup tightly and he can see that she is as nervous as he is about this tête-à-tête. He leans back in his chair.
The last time he saw her was memorable because they fought. She stood in front of him in a pair of jeans, so perfectly formed and fitting to her narrow waist and thighs that all he wanted to do was grab her and pull her to him. But her eyes were agates, boring hotly into his skin and their heat was not the same.
“If you didn’t want to be with me, why the hell couldn’t you tell me?”
“Carole, you need to calm down.”
All of a sudden she stopped. Her chest had been heaving, her hands gesticulating all over the place, her eyes, frantic with anger. Now she was still.
“Dempsey, you were in bed with that woman. I know you were.”
“Carole, we’re both single. We said, we said...” He searched for words but the rigidity of her stance suddenly frightened him.
“It’s all right, Dempsey. You’re right. We did say that we weren’t going to hold each other back from seeing people. We did say that.”
He wanted to reach for her and tell her the truth, to beg her forgiveness but he didn’t. He watched her pick up her coat and turn slowly to the door. She never glanced at him again. And he never told her that there was no other woman. Worse, that the thought of anyone one else in his arms, in his bed, made him limp.
“Are you happy with... your husband?”
Carole hesitates before she speaks. Setting the cup down, she folds her hands in front of her, finally nodding.
“Yes, I am.” Dempsey can tell that she doesn’t want to hurt him but Carole doesn’t lie when it comes to important things.
“It took me a while to get over us, but he’s good to me. He loves me and lets me know that.”
Dempsey clears his throat. “I loved, love you too.” He feels the heat flood his face. For a moment he thinks that he might start to cough but he fights the reflex with all his might by concentrating on her beauty.
“Then why did you leave? If you knew I loved you?”
She reaches and touches his hand, covering his fingers, gripping them. Hurting him and loving him at the same time. The warmth she sends reaches inside his heart, coating it with the slow-fire burn he always feels in her presence. For the first time in a long time he notices a stirring in his groin and blinks. Even now he wants her.
She says simply, “I wanted to stay but I was too afraid of life with you.”
Seeing the puzzlement in his face, she continues.
“Dempsey, do you know how beautiful you were? Every time we went out there were women. They passed you notes, smiled. I couldn’t stand the fact that they all wanted you so much.” She shrugs. “I knew it would be just a matter of time before you decided that I wasn’t good enough. You’d leave me for one of them.”
“No. That’s not true.” His voice was forceful with the knowledge of its truth, today. No other woman ever compared to Carole. No matter what he did.
“You could never say you loved me or that you would stay. Never.”
Words, long held, escape his mouth without thought of ramifications. Looming death shrouds the fear, makes the flow easier.
“Carole, I loved you. I would never have left you.”
Tears are at the corner of her eyes and one slowly drops on her cheek.
“Thank you, Dempsey.”
“No, thank you, Carole. For all the happy moments. For all the memories that are with me now. They make this part, this last part much easier.”
She leans forward and kisses his forehead, aiming for the middle line, a wrinkle that stretches the length of his brow, deeply etched and exposed.
Suddenly, Dempsey feels better, as though he has accomplished some great task. He has to ask.
“Carole, why the ties? They’ve been crazy over the years, wonderful, yes, but crazy.”
A brief smile turns her face into the young woman he met in a bowling alley more than twenty-five years ago.
“I wanted to make sure you thought of me.”
She sends a curious glance in his direction, eyebrows cocked, head tilted to one side.
Dempsey flashes his own grin and starts to recount some of the situations he has found himself in with the ties. It made no difference to either one of them that his stories were mostly of other women and missed opportunities. Carole giggles, covering her mouth, and at one point accuses Dempsey of lying.
At lunch time she rambles through the kitchen cabinets and refrigerator to find something to prepare. They settle on grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken soup and to oblige her, Dempsey makes a pretense of eating.
“You know what the worst part of getting old is?” She asks this with put-on sparkling eyes because she wants to make him laugh.
“What?” he asks in an equally cheerful voice.
“Getting gray hairs, everywhere. Even on your cochee.”
Dempsey was used to Carole. Making jokes at the most importune moments, at funerals, in the middle of making love. He sat back in his chair and laughed until real tears fell from his eyes. He thought that he never wanted her to leave or the day to end.
Stephanie calls. And it is all easier because Carole remains in the background, touching his hand, holding his fingers to her cheek.
“Dad, Dad, I know you hear what I’m saying. Why did you stop taking your medicine? I called the doctors’ office and you haven’t been in for your chemo treatments either. What’s going on? Why are you doing this? Do you want to die?”
Dempsey replies but can’t explain why all this fuss isn’t worth the effort. That he has made his decision and it is only a matter of waiting. He hears his daughter’s fear and for the first time in her life, he feels the urge to comfort her with more than merely the obligatory murmured words of a distant father. He considers for a moment telling her the truth.
“Stephanie, I need you to listen to me.”
He begins to talk to his child. He closes with, “Stephanie, I love you, very much.” He hears her through the telephone, the soft gasps as she tries to catch her breath. Pictures the red swollen eyes and the tears coursing down her cheeks, salty and sweet, running faster and harder because he has never said those words to her before, not in all her thirty years.
When it is time for Carole to leave, he kisses her. Not like a friend, but with passion. And she returns his kiss, tongue pressed to tongue. A woman of sixty and a man of seventy, the heat between them, unmistakable, raw, still.
Dempsey knows she will return to him again and again before he dies, in his dreams, in the moments before dawn, in the long, interminable days that stretch ahead.
Later, he stands and waits for the nurse as she climbs the stairs to his home. She seems surprised and pleased that he is waiting for her and smiles, a small tentative smile that reminds him of the first day they met, when she was all sunshine and he was all resentment. He returns her smile and watches as hers broadens and lifts the weary corners of her eyes. He wonders if she will accept his invitation for a cup of tea or coffee before she leaves.