My wife came home from work early and took me by surprise with the question, “Who were YOU talking to?”
Charlie and I usually held court at the kitchen table where I was sure to hear the garage door open signaling her arrival. But today we had moved to the family room anxious to listen to my new Sergio Franchi cd. I often bragged to Charlie about vacationing once in Miami where I caught the Italian crooner live in a sold out performance. Between our excitement and pumped volume her arrival went unheard.
“What?” I asked sheepishly.
“I distinctly heard you speaking when I walked in, Buddy.” Once aroused Louise’s suspicions were formidable.
“There’s no one here, dear. Maybe I was talking to Sergio. You know how I get carried away.” I gestured at the stereo.
“Well, he certainly wouldn’t hear you at this volume,” she said, turning down the sound and surveying the room.
Charlie had slipped out. He was ingenious that way. Lucky, too, he wasn’t drinking. Mine was the only cocktail glass on the coffee table. It’s not that he wasn’t game. I first met Charlie at the Willow Woods nursing facility where he was a long term resident and I was recovering from knee replacement surgery. We were seated together in the dining room. I overheard one of the aides joke that Charlie had a significant cache of wine stowed away. Charlie smiled slyly leading me to believe its truth. After morning therapy I tracked him down in his room in the hope of a little refreshment. Charlie suffered from Parkinson’s and gesticulated uncontrollably. Speech, too, was a struggle. But a patient listener could have a lively conversation with him. Since I had nothing but time on my hands we struck up an immediate friendship. My suspicions proved correct. There was an open bottle of Muscatel on his dresser. I eyed it surreptitiously not wanting him to think that the only reason for seeking him out. But after forty-five minutes I couldn’t help myself and asked if we should have a taste. He nodded his head. We were off and running.
Our arrangement worked out well. My wife was off weekends. Charlie could only visit weekdays. In addition, Louise and I were empty nesters with the sublime benefit of children who didn’t besiege us with their problems. This certainly sat well with me, if not with her. I had eagerly anticipated my retirement. I owned a pizzeria for forty years and was looking forward to the peace and quiet of finally being free from it. I would have my knee surgery. I would rehabilitate. I would be reborn. But I had complications. My hemoglobin plunged into the danger zone. Fracture blisters covered my lower leg. I ran a low grade fever. The worry was infection. I was given doses of iron. I was injected with anti-biotics in alternate shoulders for seven days. My two week stay turned into a six week ordeal all in a wheelchair with my right leg raised and wrapped in an immobilizer 24/7. I watched as the short timers came and went. None were interested in cultivating a relationship. They were too involved in their personal miseries. And as their rehabs ultimately progressed each eyed only their own release. I couldn’t scare up a game of gin rummy or checkers for the life of me. My whining was overheard by one of the maintenance crew. His name was Al. He was a burly, unkempt guy pushing fifty with a weird pencil-thin mustache that didn’t go with his bushy sideburns and shaggy chestnut hair. He ended every sentence with a smile and a snicker. He walked into my room one afternoon while I was napping.
“What?” I asked, perturbed.
“Toilet plugged, hah?”
“Not here, pal.”
He went into the bathroom and flushed. When he came out he looked at me with a big smile.
“Card player, huh?”
“Boys have a poker game Wednesdays. Eleven PM till whenever. Interested?”
“Sure. I’m goin’ stir crazy.”
“Cash only. Extra if you want to drink. Room 218. Hah, hah.”
“How you expect me to get there? I’m not exactly mobile.” Which was an understatement. I needed assistance to get out of bed, dress, get into my wheelchair, go to the toilet, whatever.
“Buzz an aide. This ain’t a prison. They will be looking for a tip. Don’t be a tightwad. Hah, hah.”
This was Tuesday. I had a day to think it over. But I had another problem. No money. I called my wife and told her to bring me fifty dollars in singles. She was surprised. We were discouraged from keeping cash in our room. There had been thefts. But she didn’t give me a hard time. When you’re sick people indulge you like a child. There’s more baby talk in a nursing home than a nursery. From day one I made a point of listening in on conversations when family visited long timers. People visiting me talked the same way. It made me sick.
“You’re a little quiet tonight, Buddy,” Louise said as she put the money in the top dresser drawer and locked it.
“Just tired,” I said taking the key. “Laura wore me out at therapy today.”
“That’s good! Every day is one day closer to home.” Her good cheer was boundless.
She peeled an orange and gave me half. “What’s up?” referring to the money.
“Baked goods sale tomorrow,” I lied.
“Buy us something good.” She had a sweet tooth as far back as I can remember. A pie carousel made her brown eyes light up. It’s one of the things I loved about her.
“Don’t hold your breath,” I warned. “They’re being made in occupational therapy.”
“Anyway, it’s for a good cause.”
She helped me wash and get ready for bed before leaving. I ached when she walked out of the room. I never got used to it. I was always on the verge of tears. I didn’t let on. I tried to be strong.
Come Wednesday night at 10:45 I made my way to room 218. The nurse at the desk pretended not to see me and the two aides I passed in the hall gave me a wink. Everybody was in on it. In the room were four lifers including Charlie, their wheelchairs arranged around the bed. I was the fifth. Introductions were made. Charlie, Scott, and Bill needed help. They couldn’t shuffle, deal, or hold their cards or drinks. Aides squatted next to them to offer assistance. Me and Tony could fend for ourselves. Al was tending bar. He kept the cocktails flowing, two bucks each plus tip. It wasn’t optional. There was rum and whiskey. “I drink gin,” I said. “This ain’t a cruise ship, hah, hah,” he snickered. I settled for highballs. The game was dealer’s choice with the stipulation something must always be made wild. It started out deuces or one-eyed jacks but got crazy after a few hands, and drinks, with Bill calling all diamonds wild followed by Tony who made it spades and then Scott who made it both spades and diamonds. Finally Charlie got us back on track with queens and threes. But by then I was broke and didn’t even have a buzz on. The big winner was Bill. His nickname was Hitman because he left you for dead. He was the reason Charlie visited me after I’d been released. He owed the Hitman 5K and was being hounded for the money. Threats were made. Charlie was afraid. He needed my help. Charlie filled me in on how big a thug the Hitman was. He pedaled pills and women. If you wanted your meds you had to pay him off. You wanted your assistance light answered in a timely manner, pay. Extra gravy on your mashed potatoes, pay. An extra dessert, pay. He bad-mouthed everybody, especially his family. They were waiting for him to die to get his dough. He would get even by outliving them all. Sitting frozen in a wheelchair with his eyes staring into outer space was an act. He bragged he never had it so good till he suffered his third stroke. I promised Charlie I’d go back to the home and have a talk with him.
Six weeks in an immobilizer left my right leg stiff as a board. Driving was out of the question. Therapy yielded limited results. I hated the exercises. I went into surgery using a cane and came out in a wheelchair. Four months later I hobbled about with a walker. Everything was an effort. That was my life. All I did was eat. I grew fat. I didn’t wash. I refused to see a doctor. I watched more TV in these months than the last fifty years. What a rut! What a disappointment! Louise is a vibrant woman of sixty, five years my junior. Our plans were to travel when I was up to it. We were going to rent a villa in Napa Valley. Drink new wine. Eat cheese and fruit. Soak our bread in olive oil. Instead she went back to work. I can’t blame her. I became the kind of person people enjoyed staying away from. Where I used to be accommodating I was now combative. Everything upset me. I blamed it on the TV. I got sucked into the dark world of cable news. What a cocoon. The more belligerent the host the more I was drawn to him. They lived to argue, to fight, to hurt. So did I. The hell with facts. Just shout the loudest. I became an expert on everything. I have four grandchildren. I clearly saw their futures were in jeopardy. I began a crusade to correct my daughter’s poor parenting. Her husband took his wife’s side. What a pussy! They stopped bringing the kids over. Louise blamed me. I was ostracized for being a good grandparent, a concerned grandparent. My other daughter was a big shot in social services. She told me I was depressed. I knew that without a master’s degree. What a waste of an education. The least thing made me cry: a sad eyed puppy, an image of a sunset, my wife’s doleful expression. Her advice was to get out more, start taking care of myself before it’s too late. That’s when Charlie came to the rescue.
It was a sunny spring day in May. The doorbell rang. I ignored it. It rang again. I ignored it again. After the third time I answered. “Jesus!” I exclaimed. He was smiling from ear to ear. He was decked out in blue Bermuda shorts and a madras shirt with the tails out, spit shined maroon penny loafers and no socks. He sported a black and red checkered racing cap and wire rimmed shades. What was remarkable was how well he moved. The Parkinson’s seemed on the wane. His head hardly jerked. There was almost no drool.
“You alone?” I asked.
“I brought the grapes,” he said raising a brown bag with a bottle of grappa in it.
“The van drop you off?”
He chuckled, swinging the front door wide. In the driveway sat a fully restored candy apple red ’62 Corvette convertible kissed with chrome and wrapped in white leather. “Wanna take it for a spin?” He dangled the keys.
Leaning hard on my walker, I let out a sigh. “I wish.”
“Later, man. I’ll get you in there even if I gotta carry you.”
We spent the day catching up on things back in the home. I didn’t realize how much I missed it, except for the food which was awful. Of course that didn’t apply to Hitman and his crew. They sat in the dining room set aside for those who needed assistance chowing down. It was tough watching the lifers work their gums over the creamed spinach and pureed chicken, the green mash leaking from the corners of their mouths while their tongues flicked out to catch the overflow before it slid from their chins to be lost forever. They were an endless source of amusement to the crew who had a separate table in the same room where they feasted on thick steaks and french fries, shrimp cocktail and Caesar’s salad, minus the anchovies, of course. They were a cruel bunch who ruled with a heavy hand. One of their rackets was taking bets on which inmate would go the longest without a bath. Charlie blushed when he said he’d once bet on me because my bad attitude pissed off the aides who were sure to look the other way when my shower was scheduled. He told me he lost by five days. I’d gone seventeen days losing out to Willie “wee wee” who wasn’t bathed for twenty-two. Neither of us approached the record of forty-seven days set in 2009 by the legendary “Big John” Heathrow who feasted on the flies that unwittingly befriended him in their own search for sustenance. The ambulance crew that carted out his body wore surgical masks to cover the stench.
I didn’t hold it against Charlie. It was just a game, like the lottery, to pass the time and maybe score a few dollars for necessities. And as a sign of friendship Charlie got the Hitman to let me play, which was a big deal, because it was a raffle reserved for lifers. Some of the residents complained the Hitman was getting soft, though not to his face. They believed rules are rules and shouldn’t be tampered with.
Charlie told me Stella said hello. I’d forgotten about her. She was a stubborn woman who wouldn’t let herself be pushed about in her chair. Instead she wheel-walked with these tiny steps that moved her along as painstakingly as a bead of sweat working its way down a wrinkled cheek of beard stubble. It was okay with me. I liked having her in view. She was one of the few women in the Woods who didn’t let herself go. She was a chanteuse when young who styled herself another Mae West, but more risqué. I could easily picture her with platinum hair and dark penciled eyebrows, puckered ruby lips and a beauty mark on her right cheek. These days she wore her hair red and hanging to her neck with curly bangs, a bow to her heydays in the forties when boys started cackling for the girl-next-door look. She was only too happy to oblige. That accommodating nature served her well here. Hitman had an eye for talent and cozied up to her right after she was brought in from a sister facility which had to reduce its ranks owing to an upcoming inspection. She told Hitman to bug off, that she was a freelancer who didn’t need or want management. But Hitman put the squeeze on her. He put out the word that the consequences would be dire for anyone who dared enlist Stella’s services. Stella figured she would bide her time and eventually be returned to the other home where she could ply her trade freely. She didn’t know Hitman. He got to the administrator, offered him ten per cent of her action, and had her placed here permanently. Under those circumstances what could she do? She became part of his stable.
Now I like sex as much as the next guy. But, sorry to say, at this stage of the game other things were more urgent. I won’t name them. Besides, I’m old fashioned with old fashioned morals. Fidelity was number one on my list. You tie the knot, you mothball your roving eye. It paid off because when I needed her most, my Louise was there for me. Though I was embarrassed, I never felt humiliated. But she knew. Women have a sixth sense about those things. She had just gotten me into bed and had settled into the chair next to me. “I know you still have feelings, Honey. Sexual feelings. I don’t know what goes on in here when I’m gone. What I’m saying is if there is an opportunity, I’ll understand.” My eyes welled up and my lips quivered. “Shh. Don’t try and talk.” She held my hand till I fell asleep.
I don’t think Stella was feeding me a line when she said I was the kind of guy she could have fallen for. Her life was full of pizazz: fast talkers and exit walkers. But that wears a woman out. In the end they look for someone solid. That was me, solid as a rock and just as dull. I worked seven days a week, 12 hours a day, forever, till I finally wised up and started closing Tuesdays. And at my side the whole time was Louise. My darling Louise. She didn’t deserve a louse like me. We worked like mules. But it was too late. My knees were shot. I gobbled aspirin like candy. I ended up in the ICU at Buffalo General with a duodenal ulcer. I never fully recovered. I cut back my hours, eliminated my catering menu, but it didn’t matter. The damage was done. When I finally got around to my knee surgery, my body was weak. The blisters were the evidence. Six months later a stroke concluded the deal. It was an unethical way to get back into Willow Wood but Charlie was my friend. I couldn’t let him down. Sometimes you have to cut off your toes to fit into the glass slipper.
Charlie was having it rough. He loved his raisin toast for breakfast. They always just ran out. He liked his eggs scrambled. They came sunny side up and runny. When Charlie got angry he choked up and couldn’t speak for himself. It was clear to me what was going on. I couldn’t stand seeing him abused. I confronted Hitman in the community lounge. He never traveled alone. There were three guys between me and him. Things must have been going good. They all had motorized chairs. They were quick and agile as jackrabbits. As good as I was I couldn’t get close. I circled. I feinted. I tried to lock wheels. I wanted to raise my leg and charge head on and nail Hitman in the balls. I didn’t have the strength. They boxed me out. One of his bodyguards was ex-mafia. They called him Hammer. He was a mean son of a bitch, tall and wiry with dead black eyes. After his last surgery his head hung down with his chin resting on his chest so that he looked at you through the tops of those eyes. The whites were bloodshot. What a Halloween mask! He was a horror. Word was he carried a blade in his fanny pack. “Our day will come,” I vowed, finally backing off. Hitman laughed at my threats. The others joined in. Their guards were down. I was about to renew my attack when Laura, my PT, found me and whisked me away. “If I didn’t know better, Buddy, I’d swear you were hiding from me,” she teased. She was a nice kid. Better she was kept in the dark. It was for her own good.
During my first stay Laura had done her best to get me on my feet. She was up against it, though. She had never worked with a polio patient before. The muscles where my new knee was attached were badly atrophied. The surgeon didn’t want to chance bending the knee. She worked within these limitations getting me in good enough shape to be sprung after six miserable weeks. My legs were in better shape now than then. Of course now I had other problems. I wasn’t optimistic. Regardless, I didn’t plan on another six weeks. My idea was to buy off Charlie’s debt for a dime on the dollar. Five hundred cash in the hand is better than five thousand owed. At least to a reasonable man. Whether Hitman was that kind of man remained to be seen.
To make things worse Charlie and Stella were in love. She took herself off the market. Hitman was livid. He didn’t care about their relationship. She could love whomever she wanted, he bragged. After all, he wasn’t a fascist. But she had to keep her commitments. If not he would hold Charlie responsible for the lost revenue. We decided to get together in my room to discuss strategy. Word got out. Two of Hitman’s crew stationed themselves near my door. Charlie had Stella with him. He was worried about her safety. She told him she wasn’t afraid. She’d follow him into the bowels of hell if he asked. She could really paint a picture. It was a remnant from her stage days. They breezed in defiantly. Both were beaming with Stella positively radiant, even regal. She had replaced her red wig with a brunette number with a conservative cut. She had on a string of pearls and a gold bracelet. A white corsage was pinned to her blue dress. That was Charlie’s idea. He was a big Billie Holiday fan, but Stella refused to wear a gardenia in her hair. The corsage was the compromise.
I told them my plan to pay off the debt. I was sure Hitman would go for it. But this new wrinkle complicated things. Charlie said there were only six guys in Hitman’s gang. He believed we could muster a larger force and suggested using the five hundred to buy our own crew. He knew three guys for sure who hated Hitman’s guts. But he owns the staff, Stella countered. They’re all on his payroll. If we get rid of Hitman they’ll be pissed about losing their take. The residents would be the ones to suffer.
First things first, I reasoned. We have to take Hitman out. He’s the key. We can’t worry about anything else. With him out of the way his crew will fold. There isn’t half a brain among them. We can’t worry about the staff. There will be a period of confusion. We’ll keep our ears open. When the opportunity presents itself we’ll smooth them over. We all agreed. But then the question became who whacks the Hitman? To me it was obvious. It was my responsibility. I was in the worst shape, I argued. I had the least to lose.
“You’ll never get close to him,” Charlie said. “I’ll do it.”
For a little guy barely five feet and maybe 120 pounds he had a lot of spunk. He managed a bar in the seventies. Lots of punks tested him. He schooled them all. He figured he could get a face to face by flashing Hitman the cash. Overall Charlie was in good shape. Certainly better than me. He could still strut a good twenty feet with his walker. When he got Hitman alone he would pounce on him. He had a length of speaker wire. He would hide it under his collar. He would use it to strangle the bastard. Problem solved.
“You’ll never get him alone,” Stella objected. “I’m the only one who can do that.”
She spoke quietly, deliberately. Poison was her method. Hitman liked a drink before sex. She knew where Al kept the rat poison. She would slip it into his Makers Mark. No blood. No signs of struggle. No inquiry. They’ll cart him out with the trash. His bed will be filled the next day. In a week he’ll be forgotten. But, she cautioned, Hammer and his other main henchman, Sickle, would be stationed outside his door. After Hitman finished with her she had to attend to them. And neither was gentle, particularly Sickle who was a former G-man. He kept an assortment of toys in his bottom dresser drawer that were all about pain, her pain. “He forces me to choose while laughing in my face,” she said shyly. “His vile laugh never goes away.” Hammer’s sick game was to watch. He got his kicks that way. “He loves running his blade along the inside of my thighs not quite breaking the skin.” They, too, would have to be taken out.
After hearing this Charlie was at the point of tears. Evidently he didn’t know what Stella went through. I was in shock too. I couldn’t imagine the woman I loved being abused this way. The thought of Louise subjected to such depravity roused me to fury. Not only would these two die, their deaths would be a source of great personal pleasure. Me and Charlie talked it over. We would wait till they were alone in the room with Stella. Sickle would be out of his chair. Hammer would have his brake on. Surprise would be our advantage. We would move in quickly, quietly. I would garret Hammer from behind. I could almost hear his neck crack. Charlie demanded that Sickle be made to suffer. A quick death was too good for him. He would put out both his eyes before cutting out his heart. We were excited. We were unquestionably on the side of right. We would strike a blow for all abused women. Stella put the cabash on our plans. “No blood,” she said. We were like children, she scolded. All we could think of was gore and mayhem. She would take care of it. She would leave with Hitman’s private hooch. He never shared the good stuff. They’ll believe she stole it to make their romp more pleasurable. They’ll drink it and drown in their own puke. The only question left was when to pull the trigger?
We didn’t want family members around when the time came. They wouldn’t understand. When you tried to tell them something important they tuned you out. Charlie and Stella never got visitors. For them it was no problem. My situation was different. Louise visited every day, my daughters twice a week, sometimes with their husbands. They doted over me. Dinner time used to be a big deal for me. It wasn’t anymore. Still they did their best. Chewing was difficult but I could still swallow tiny bites. I slurped through a straw. I couldn’t hold a fork with my left hand. Thank God I was right handed. Keeping me fed was their crusade. I would eat myself back to health. Louise didn’t trust the kitchen here. She fixed food at home and brought it in. She would set a table in the lounge. Linen napkins. Real silverware. As she fed me I did my best to stay cheerful. But nothing tasted the way I remembered. I had little appetite. When my sons-in–law tagged along and I watched them pack away pizza and chicken wings I got depressed. If my head wasn’t locked in a brace I would have turned away.
Still, I felt obligated to let Louise in on the workings here. I am a realist. There was a possibility something could go wrong. These were dangerous people, evil people. If they got wind of our plot they would be sure to strike first. Hammer would slit my throat in a heartbeat and watch in smug satisfaction as my life ebbed away. I didn’t want his to be the last face I saw before meeting my Maker. I often imagined my last moments. Dying didn’t scare me, but dying alone did. I never was brave. With everything that’s happened I’ve thought a lot about my life. The details I can recall startle me. My leg in a cast after my first polio operation. My father carrying me into the house. My mother urging me on as I learned to walk again. Playing hide and seek or dodgeball with my friends. High school. College. Names, dates, faces, a thousand courtesies, a thousand slights. But nothing was so finely chiseled when compared to my Louise. My life didn’t begin until I met her. I recalled a phrase from a poem: “boon companion.” It was hardly sufficient. She was the better part of every second of every minute of every hour for the forty years we were together. And now I couldn’t hold her. Kiss her. Tell her how much I loved her. Leaving her would hurt the most. It would be my only act of courage in a life of too many wrongs that can’t be undone. I failed her. I will not do so again, not in these final moments. Goodbye my love. Turn from this misery and darkness and walk briskly into the light.
It’s not often things work out as planned, but this did down to the last detail. Stella struck in that lazy time between lunch and dinner. First to fall was the Hitman. He went fast. He was no match for Stella. When she came out of Hitman’s room Hammer and Sickle grinned lasciviously, the idiots. They were unaware. Innocents going to slaughter. In their eagerness to usher Stella into Sickle’s room their chairs collided. Hammer’s hand caught the door jamb. He cursed as the door shut behind him. Me and Charlie waited in the hallway. We were on pins and needles. I had all I could do to keep Charlie from storming the room. “Be patient,” I said. “Give her more time.” But I knew the depraved scenes haunting his mind. It was making him crazy. Finally, after an eternity, Stella emerged and gave us the thumbs up. We beat a quick retreat to our beds and waited for the chaos to wind down. What a mess. Administrators, aides, maintenance people, therapists running every which way through the corridors. Ambulances and police arrived, sirens blaring. More commotion with shouting and accusations flung like confetti. I closed my eyes. I could rest easy. We had accomplished what we had set out to do. Charlie and Stella were free and clear to live and love. Now I could be done with it. I heard my door open. Louise walked in. The look in her eyes said it all. She knew she was too late. “No tears,” I rasped. I was never a bourbon fan, I joked. But this stuff was smooth. It left me warm inside. She waited patiently with me until it was over.