His gnarled hands thrummed a blues tune against the cool chrome of his electric wheelchair. Bessie Smith's rasping, gravelly, guttural voice oozed cigarette smoke and the mysteries of sex inside his head as he contemplated the pulled stitches on the band of his pork pie hat. The damned son had brought him that hat yesterday and left it while his father napped. He had thrown in the hat like a newspaper. His father, though he slept, had a vague sense that the big oaf had been there even before he opened his eyes to the torn hat.
The house was gone. So many times his son and namesake, though only his long-deceased mother had the stomach to call him by the father's name, had told him the house was safe that the father inclined himself to believe it. The rest of the family called the son Lanny because that's the way they saw him, as a backward version of Allan, his father. The son had slunk in and out without even waiting for the old man to awake. That was the way of him.
So long as everything the old man owned was in the house, he would go home. That's the way Allan thought. The house he had built after the war, though he had only learned about construction from reading a few books from the public library, stood on the corner of that suburban street that had changed little in its life. He would return to it.
Much of what was once in the house--glued together china clocks and teacups that his mother had passed on to him, cracked mirrors, rugs his mother had hooked for the family, the World War II books and histories of submarine warfare--were relics of a love he would not bury.
He never let his son bring any of these things to him in the nursing home. He would go back. Time in this place was merely a hiatus from remembering. When he insisted that Lanny take back the family albums and the pillows and rugs from the house, Allan was telling his son that he would go back. The insistence annoyed the son because he knew his father would never return.
Lanny determined that he would take his father's refusal to integrate mementos with his new home to mean that the bitter old bastard would not mind if he rented the place fully furnished.
The son had three tag sales to get rid of everything but most of the furniture. The family learned about these public events after they were over. Where had Allan's mother's china closet gone? The World War II ephemera? All those things that constituted a life of war and work and death after death after death in a family of soldiers and sons and daughters who dared young and died? Lanny could not say.
There, on the top of his dresser, lay the pork pie hat that the old man had worn every cool day of the twenty years that preceded the strokes. He needed help now even to reach it, if he could make anybody understand that he wanted to wear it. That didn't matter now. Now that hat sat on his pile of library books, which the volunteer had delivered to him while Allan slept. The hat was a menace. "You are not young," it said. "I alone remain of your memory." The pulled stitches sneered at him in his chair. The Bessie Smith record in his mind skipped and spluttered until he turned his gaze to the daylilies on the slope outside his window.
He would go. The house was his until he died, after all. That much he remembered. He could almost see in the clouded eye of his mind the legal document he had signed in Lanny's presence that granted Allan the right to be in the house until his death. There were stipulations he could not recall, but even their absence did not stir his mind. The house and what remained inside would always be his. He had not left anything but the house to his son. He had intended to give his things away to the people he loved. They would understand the gifts and accept the cracks in the teacups and clocks. They understood.
Allan motored himself down the hall, past the nurses' station, and out the front door of the nursing home with the determination of a sudden decision that seemed obviously sensible. He indicated with the raised thrust of his chin in the direction of the receptionist that he would be out on the patio. Nobody would suspect anything strange about that.
In the city his small town had become, nobody looked twice at an age-stiffened man hurling himself in a wheelchair down road after road. How much time passed as he worked his way to King Street, where stood the grey-shingled house, his monument to a loving wife, their children, and the family they welcomed in it Sunday after Sunday? The gunmetal grey of the house in the soft light of dusk reminded him of the sea, as it always used to. He thought, then, of Laurence, his brother who died when the Japs torpedoed the USS Herring when it was patrolling the seas off the Kurile Islands in 1942. The Navy had supposed Laurence was dead because the Navy never found him.
Allan never accepted Laurence's passing. Instead, he dedicated a separate room to his brother's memory. Within the pine paneled four walls of the small room that Allan had called his inner sanctum were mountains of books about submarines and that war and letters from anybody who knew anything about Laurence or men like him. From those fragments, he constructed his brother. Nobody but Allan and his wife ever entered that room before the tag sales. (His wife's ashes were in the room, too, but how was Lanny to know?)
The house was dark inside, though it was dinnertime. The garage doors lay open, revealing garbage cans that did not belong to Allan. The old man craned his neck in the direction of the little building to better see what had happened to his workshop. Where were his traps? The shelves of nuts and nails and bolts and screws that he had organized into the mixed nut cans he collected month after month so many decades ago? Where, indeed, was the Buick? His gorge rose, and he wanted to climb out of the damned chair and get into the garage to determine what in Sam Hell else was missing, but Allan only pulled his lame arm close to his chest to appease the twinge that gripped it suddenly. His son never got him the operation on the arm; he would not eat into his inheritance to repair a man so close to death, anyway.
Allan turned to face his mailbox at the edge of the road but could not find the tube he had fashioned out of boilerplate so that the local brats could not blow it up anymore. In its place was a plastic one with the name Gage glued to its side. His tired mind slowly flashed snapshots of the rooms of the house as he had left them. Panic seized his heart then and shook new energy into his body. He wheeled himself to the back of the house to peer into the cellar through the door window.
There, he saw a child's playroom. (Where was his workshop?) A girl's playroom: there was a dollhouse, a rocker, and several rubber dolls in various stages of undress scattered across the floor. He tried the knob and was surprised that it yielded to him. He opened the door and pulled himself inside. Gone were the remnants of the decorative leather items business he had begun in the fifties to make some extra money for the family. Gone were the few ashtrays, waste paper baskets, and book covers that they had not sold before they folded the business in the seventies. Allan looked down to the poorly made doll clothes littering the floor and thought how he and his wife had wanted a little girl but never had one. How he loved little girls and their darling little ways and sweet manners. Here was one now trespassing in his workshop. Whose cruel joke was this?
On the nail beside the cellar door, where he used to keep the pork pie hat, hung the girl's jump rope. He imagined Lanny grabbing the hat on his way out that door for the last time. The lady of the house would have told him he had left an old hat down cellar and should she just throw it out? It was worn, after all. No, he would have said, I'll give it to the old man. "He won't be able to say I never gave him anything," Lanny would have said and laughed in admiration of what he would have thought was his clever use of a cliché. Allan shook his head in response to the sad drama as he imagined it and studied the walls of his beloved cellar and tried to recall the rainy Saturdays he had spent down there creating gifts and toys and repairing shoes and boots for his children and grandchildren.
During this revery, he had not heard the family as they busted through the back hall door upstairs or the child skipping down the stairs to her toys. Her scream, however, startled him back to the problem of their trespassing in his home as if it were their own. He turned to the stairs, where he saw a strange woman and heard, "Who?" Ruth? he thought. No. That was not his wife, the child was not theirs. Who was playing this cruel joke? Allan stammered in his confusion the few words he had practiced after the second stroke silenced him: "My house." He heard the words clearly in his mind, but a quite different sound had emerged from his tired throat. The woman, however, could not make out the ba ba sounds or what he wanted. She noticed that he was wearing a medical identification bracelet and pointed to it by way of asking permission to look at it. She was too terrified to speak. She saw, then, that he was the landlord's father. "Stay," she said to him as she pulled her daughter upstairs as if the old man were a dog. "I'll call the police."
Quiet sealed the room again, and the old man looked up to the window under which his workbench formerly sat. So many times he was able to watch from that window the deer as they grazed around his backyard in search of edible plants. "Deer," he thought. He would go down to the brook to watch for deer. They would come now; they always came out at twilight to enjoy freedom in the semi-dark that drove people indoors. Allan wheeled himself to the door and, although it was not there, reached for the pork pie hat and put it on his head.
Though the police came and searched the house, they saw no signs of him. The firm ground did not betray Allan's wheelchair tracks. Nor was there a report that he was missing from the nursing home. The nurses had checked the room and saw that Allan's bed was crumpled. Charles, the roommate, had assured them that the old bugger was sound asleep after a lively hour-long shouting match with a visitor.
Next morning, a rainy Saturday, the Gages' dog found the old man in his wheelchair in the stream. Frost had stiffened Allan's hair. Though his life had drained from him with the last trace of body heat sometime in the moonless night, the old man's eyes were open yet.
© 2001 Sandy Carlson. All rights reserved.