House Call

The rest home, Shady Glen, was located at a busy intersection near the shopping center. What it lacked in shade, it enjoyed in shopping convenience. As I pulled into the parking lot, a couple carrying Walmart’s turkey-and-pilgrim Thanksgiving shopping bags were migrating toward the door.

The receptionist, in her huge inverted glasses, was feckless, but resolutely non-peevish. A classic passive-aggressive who left me feeling entitled to be annoyed, but with little tangible reason to be. She couldn’t find Evelyn’s name. She couldn’t tell me where Evelyn was. “Have you ever been here before?” she wanted to know. I told her I that could find the room on my own… would I really not mind?

The facility was not large. I managed to keep the glimpses of wheelchairs, walkers, gray halting figures more or less on the periphery of my perception as two or three instinctive maneuvers steered me quickly to Evelyn’s wing, her hall, her room. But my concentration gave out. Just as I was about to enter Evelyn’s room, I reflexively glanced in the room across the hall and there sat an aged man, alone on the edge of his bed, in a maroon bathrobe and blue pajamas, his face fixed in an expression of permanent surprise. I had to smile. His expression didn’t change. Then I was in Evelyn’s doorway, surrounded by forearms.

“Frank, Ohhh!” Cheryl jumped up from Evelyn’s bedside and threw her arms around me. “How nice of you to come.”

Evelyn perked up in bed. “Get him a chair, for crying out loud.”

“Frank I’m so glad to see you.”

“Hi, Mrs. Tuttle,” I said over Cheryl’s Rayon-sheathed shoulder.

“Are you going to introduce us or not?”

When the commotion subsided, I found myself sitting in an upholstered chair by a window. It was a pleasant enough room, free of a hospital’s hi-tech sterility. A second bed, unused, had withdrawn into the dim, windowless corner opposite the window. Evelyn looked well-rested, but the hand sticking out of her cast was markedly bruised. Cheryl brought me up to date and for the first time I heard the official diagnosis: Evelyn’s hip had suffered a fracture, and a slight chip, and she had broken her ulna. Cheryl had found Evelyn, next to the couch and unable to get up, when she was dropping off the Sunday paper.

“That’s when I nearly had a heart attack,” Cheryl said, “when I opened the door. It’s such a shock. I always ring the doorbell, I guess it’s just habit, and respect, I don’t want to just walk in. But she yelled for me to come in.”

A small peaceful smile settled on Evelyn’s face.

“So when I opened the door, here's my mother laying on the living room floor. . . well, my heart was in my hands.”

“Who’s wouldn’t be,” I said. “You didn’t know what…”


“Was she awake?”

Evelyn seemed to enjoy being the subject of conversation. Her head nodded contentedly as Cheryl related the story.

“Yeah. And I said to her ‘Mother! What happened?’ And she said ‘I got up from the couch, and my legs just couldn’t go. I fell.’ But you know, right there is the glass coffee table. She could have fallen into that. On the other side, by the wall, is the TV. She could have hit that. So there’s a lot to be thankful for.”

“I just want to walk,” said Evelyn.

“Give it time, Ma, you’ll walk. What did I tell you? Patience is a virtue. It only happened a week ago yesterday. When I had my surgery, a week later I wasn’t out dancing. I was glad to be breathing.”

It was only six months before that Cheryl, at age forty-six, had had a stroke which left her nearly blind in one eye and deaf in one ear, but with no serious residual motor problems. Three months of convalescence had restored her sufficiently to permit resuming her work at the office, although it was widely rumored that she shouldn’t be driving. She could be observed on a regular basis bumping into the ditch on the far side of Dix Road when making a left turn out of the parking lot at the end of the day.

Evelyn stirred. “I’m a patient all right. I don’t have a choice.”

“Did they give you any idea how long you’re expected to be here?” I said.

“I didn’t know this was going to take place,” Cheryl piped up, “that she’d be here. I had no idea at all. Dr. Kirchbaum called me and said ‘Cheryl, there’s nothing we can do any longer at the hospital.’ He said ‘what your mother needs is rehabilitation.’ So I said, okay, now how do I go about making reservations? He said ‘I’ve already taken care of everything.”

“That’s a help.”

“Oh sure,” said Evelyn.

“Dr. Kirchbaum said ‘I very very highly recommend. . .”

“It’s excellent here.”

“I’m here every day and I see. If I were to see the slightest… She would be out of here tonight.”

Suddenly there was a hubbub down the hall. Tortured, incoherent wails overlapped by a sweeping, loud, reassuring voice, “Now, Mrs. Brinks...,” adept at overwhelming the trouble. The wails whimpered off and were gone. Cheryl got up and closed the door.

“Thank God you’ll be coming home ma.”

Evelyn pulled the blanket up closer to her chin. “I can’t wait,” she said.

I asked whether she would be able to get around on her own when she returned home. Would she need a wheelchair? Could Cheryl get a disabled parking permit?

“Mom was in the hospital Saturday night,” said Cheryl, “and I got a phone call Wednesday. The Home Care place called me, and said ‘are you going to be home?’ I said yes, I’ll be home until three-thirty. ‘Well, we have a portable commode,’ they said, ‘and a walker—with a platform. The platform is for her cast.’ I said what’s the purpose of this? I would rather wait until my mother’s home, or a couple days before she comes home. There’s no reason for delivering a portable commode now!”

“Oh, there’s a reason all right,” said Evelyn, rubbing her thumb and forefinger together.

“That’s exactly it.” said Cheryl. “They said ‘The walker is one hundred eighty-eight dollars, and the commode—’ I said, ‘you keep them both.’ I said ‘you have a nice day’ and I hung up. So you know what they did? Rather than deliver it to the condo, they delivered the walker to the hospital. She didn’t know that, right, Ma?”

“No, I didn’t know anything about it.”

“So then I called back and I said ‘I very much appreciate your donating both the walker and the commode. Now, I want you to know that these are donations that you’re making.’ They came that day and picked them up, right, Ma? They came and got them.”

“They came the same day.”

“If mom’s going to be here two, three, four weeks, what am I going to do with a portable commode?”

It took a little longer than expected for Evelyn to recuperate sufficiently to leave Shady Glen. But by Christmas she was home, and that was all that Cheryl could have asked. Evelyn was getting around on the walker that the Home Care place had provided, and Cheryl spent a great deal of her free time at her mother’s condo, cooking meals and watching TV, or else taking her to Bingo and pot luck in the condo rec room with the rest of the seniors.

At the office Christmas party news about Evelyn’s health was widely, if politely, sought. Cheryl was gracious but inclined, under the circumstances, to cut the topic short. And for that the party was grateful. As the afternoon wound down Joan Pritchard, the CEO’s executive secretary, made up a plate from the buffet for Evelyn.

“Better grab Evelyn some of that cheesecake,” I said. “It’s going to be a popular souvenir.”

“Harvey Stickley brought that," said Joan. "Have you ever tasted such lusciousness in all your life? Made it himself, I understand, from scratch.” There was not a trace of brittleness in Joan’s southern charm. It went back eons, it seemed, and put one at ease the moment it was heard, beckoning from Arcadian realms of immemorial comfort and sanity. “Oh, and she must taste the salmon, it’s too delicious.”

“Are you trying to ruin my diet?’ mom’s gonna say,” said Cheryl. “Imagine? Here she is, confined to a walker, and she’s worried about her diet. ‘Ma,’ I tell her, ‘you quit smoking first, and then we’ll worry about your diet.”

“You’re not going to be alone for Christmas, are you?” said Joan. “Because if you are, I want you to join our family. . . we’re having a little get-together on the twenty-eighth around six-ish. Of course, I understand if your mother isn’t up to it but you’re both more than welcome to join us. I’ll give you directions.” Then she turned to me. “And you too, Frank. You, of course, don’t need directions.”

“Actually, I could swing by and pick up you and Evelyn,” I said to Cheryl.

Cheryl’s face dawned with sweetly calamitous delight. “You know, Frank, that would do her a lot of good.”

“We could stay as long as she’s comfortable.”

Evelyn had wanted to visit the hairdresser before going to Joan’s party. Cheryl dropped her off at the salon and then went shopping. An hour later, her mother was ready; Cheryl pulled into the handicapped parking spot and was about to turn off the engine when Evelyn came out of the salon, with her walker, accompanied by Ronnie, her hairdresser. So instead of parking, Cheryl backed out and drove across the small lot to meet them at the entrance.

The details of the story from this point are lost, understandably, to tears and conjecture. As Ronnie was helping Evelyn into her seat, Cheryl lost control of the car, it lurched, swerved, caught Evelyn and the walker on the open door and threw her to the ground where amid scraping aluminum and appalling crunching and thuds, Evelyn was killed.

After the funeral, for which I procured a small musical ensemble from church, Cheryl withdrew. She had something of a breakdown following her mother’s death; her leave of absence from work was extended, was extended again, and finally a letter of resignation, postmarked Ypsilanti, Mi., was received by Human Resources. I received a letter of my own, about a week later.

Dear Frank,

Frank, you were so kind to me after mother’s accident, I can’t thank you enough for all you did to help me through that difficult time. It’s ironic that she never made it to Joan’s party, but she was determined to look her best for it, and she always felt ten feet tall after she had her hair done at the beauty salon, and I know, in her own unique way, she died happy.

Sorry I didn’t write sooner. As you can imagine, it took a while for me to get back on my feet. When I did, I found myself in Ypsilanti at my cousin Bob’s, who has been a godsend. Having sold mom’s condo gave me some breathing room. Bob wants me to move here, but I don’t think I will. I’m taking a course at Michigan - Renaissance Music - to offer me some distraction until I decide what to do. I’m beginning to miss Sebring already, especially the orange blossoms. I’ll probably head back for the summer.

Would you do me an enormous favor? Stop by the condo and change the Damp-Rid crystals? I’m sure they’re all melted by now, and I don’t want the place to get overgrown with mildew (you know Florida!) There should be fresh in the hall closet shelf with the vacuum cleaner bags. The key is enclosed.

Frank, you’ve been a real friend, and I value your friendship. I hope this isn’t too much trouble for you, and that all is well with you. Say hi to Joan, John, and everybody at the agency. Take the twenty and get yourself a bite at The Pit. Take Donna Simmons to lunch (maybe you’ll get a raise - fat chance!) Thanks a million. You’re in my thoughts and prayers.

Love, Cheryl.

In the kitchen at the office, Joan was standing in front of a vending machine, frowning.

“Why are you glaring at the great starch machine?”

Joan looked up, shot me a look of refractive dismay, and turned back to the obdurate machine. “The damn thing shanghaied my Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies.” Her little cookie pack had been oozed off their stainless steel corkscrew and was now hanging by a crenulated edge in the grip of a pair of M & M snack packs in a nether row. “I will not be responsible for the consequences unless I get Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies into my system within the next five minutes.”

“Hmm. I see your problem.” We stared at the hijacked cookies.

“Bill Stein wiggles it somehow,” Joan said, giving the hulking appliance an ineffectual tiny kick.

I mined my pocket for change. “No need to resort to violence.” The coins rattled into the machine and reached home with a pleasing chunk. I pressed the woggly translucent button. With a powerful, quiet, low-ratio whir the steel spiral slowly turned; the next packet of cookies crawled to the end of the spit, then quickly fell, colliding with the little traffic jam on M & M street, which it was meant to disperse. But now there were two Pepperidge Farm snack packs in the bottleneck, instead of one.

Joan stared at the phenomenon. “Fascinating,” she said.

When I got back to my desk I had email, all with the same header: “re: what is Damp-Rid?” The most informative was from Mike Bescher, the head of maintenance: Calcium chloride crystals. They absorb moisture from the air, melt, and precipitate the moisture into a reservoir. Used in areas where air conditioning or dehumidification is impractical, closets for instance. Snowbirds use them in their condos while they’re up north and have their A/C turned off. See you Friday after work at Babingers? Michele will be joining us. }:o)

A pack of Pepperidge Farm Geneva cookies suddenly landed on my desk with a smack. Bill Stein was standing at the door.

“Aw right, Bill!”

“Joan stopped by my office. Seems your pool shot didn’t quite work.”

“No, but I guess your pinball experience did.”

“All those years at Dino’s Pizza while the dog was eating my homework.”

Cheryl’s condo, the Miramar Manor, was one of thousands like it that were built all over Florida before the relentless upscaling which follows the saturation of early development turned it into an outmoded, and probably doomed, artifact. Plain stucco, painted powder blue, its one-story design housed six units. The condo had the approximate scale of a videocassette laid flat, with a bleak central courtyard mottled with scorched grass. I parked in Cheryl’s slot, and with the loose key (spiraled onto my key ring, but on second thought, removed) opened the flimsy screen door, then the heavy paneled one.

The homes of absent owners repose in a kind of summation of their inhabitants’ persons. The intimacy attached to possessions, and emanating from them, is present in the never quite random arrangement of those things in a private space. Encountering this essence in the owner’s effects, in his surroundings, is seldom unpleasant. It gives even the most prudent of us the privileged, and unavoidably clandestine, perceptual opportunity of a spy. It’s delectable, an intimate ogle without the pressure of the subject’s counter-scrutiny.

Daylight edged into the room through the vertical blinds; Cheryl’s decor was Rooms-To-Go, supervened by personal idiosyncrasy. A dramatic Rocky Mountain mural filled the wall behind a rattan couch, which was part of a matched suite upholstered in nice green and wheat stripes. A pretty Chinese urn, black with white egrets, held a spray of sea-oats. The decor almost captured the gloss of the countless furniture store displays to which it evidently aspired, and to which Cheryl had apparently given considerable attention. But there was the TV antenna, a complicated lunar module which sat not on the TV but on an end table half a room away, a concession no doubt to improved reception, trailing its ugly brown tapeworm of a cable across a bare stretch of white wall. Books were everywhere, mostly paperback romances. I switched on the dining alcove light, which divulged another burst of rattan and glass. A bunch of New Age CDs were scattered on the dining table. Deep Forest, one of them was called, With The Athenian Starlight Orchestra. There too were a tear-out subscription renewal, unmailed and expired, for Smithsonian, two Lotto stubs, and a small stack of sympathy cards, most of which came from the office: everything from the mail room’s little pastel watercolor of a horizon-bound sailboat and its touching little poem, to Joan’s Pritchard’s dramatic stained-glass window and psalm. The customary hand-written note which appended my own exquisitely neutral Hallmark struck me, on second reading, as fawning and flip. I shuffled it to the bottom of the stack.

On to the kitchen. A little plastic tub, about the size of a jumbo Cool Whip container sat on the counter: the Damp-Rid unit. The quart-sized container held a smaller insert, like a coffee-filter holder, perforated on the bottom, through which the calcium chloride crystals had precipitated into the bottom half of the container. A trace of pinkish sludge was all that remained in the upper basket; the bottom was filled with a heavy clear liquid, which I emptied in the sink. I rinsed out the two pieces and set them to drain on a paper towel. I opened the refrigerator.

Condiments galore. Ketchup, mustard, salad dressing, soy sauce, several varieties of hot sauce, salsa, liquid smoke, horseradish, horseradish mayonnaise, bacon bits, garlic chips, onion flakes, orange marmalade. The only actual food were two English muffins, as hard as Frisbees and, in the crisper, a head of lettuce as soft as lime Jell-O. I found a plastic supermarket bag and threw them out. I went looking for more spent Damp-Rid. There was another in the bedroom, and one more in the bathroom tub. I drained and rinsed those in the bathroom sink. Cheryl had forgotten to turn off the water heater; the water came piping hot.

The bathroom was an elegant nook different from the rest of Cheryl’s home. Whether from inspiration or indifference, she had allowed the alchemy of its few rich ingredients to breathe and glimmer. A small bathroom, its dark emerald marbled-tiled floor, its avocado towels, its forest- green ceramic, all drew the space darkly, sumptuously, close. The intimate, glen-like aura grew even stronger as the running hot water induced whatever soaps or cosmetics present in the room to release their fragrance. I turned the tap off and undressed; I then took a long hot shower, as nomadic and enjoyable as that any campsite or lush hotel might dispense.

As I stood shedding droplets on the moss-green bath mat, I wiped the mist off the mirror, and finger-combed my hair. But now, in a routine after-shower mood, my teeth felt gummy. I’d never used an electric toothbrush and Cheryl’s, a flick of it’s tiny plastic switch revealed, was fully charged; it sprang to life with vibratory zeal. Among the diminutive insertable brushes arrayed in their custom plastic cradle, the pink one was slightly mashed and frayed, evidently Cheryl’s. I inserted the jade-green brush, applied a bead of toothpaste to its stiff new bristles, and within minutes my entire head was vibrating in the after-hum of the electro-efficient polishing. I removed and rinsed the little brush and replaced the parts in their respective holders. I opened the medicine chest.

Cosmetics galore. Creams, foundations, blushes, brushes, lipsticks, eyeliners, mascara, moisturizers, nail polish, lip liner, a gleaming Las Vegas of glass and gold. I opened a bottle of foundation and sniffed. The chalky fragrance, a flowery Pepto-Bismol provoked a mild gag response. I tasted one of the lipsticks: “Very Cherry.” Waxy bitter perfume. There were three prescription bottles. An old streptomycin, with three tablets remaining. A few Percocets. A dozen or so Naprosin. I took a Percocet and washed it down with a handful of tap water. Then I switched off the light, and carried one of the Damp-Rid containers back to the bedroom.

I went to the dresser to get a better look at the photographs - there was one of Evelyn, one of a child who was surely Cheryl, a more recent one of Evelyn, Cheryl, and a young couple together at the beach, a shot of Cheryl’s birthday party at the office, and another of Evelyn blowing out candles with several smiling strangers looming in the background. I opened the bottom drawer: socks. The top drawer contained jewelry and assorted miscellany. True to the strata of the human body that the dresser mimed, the next drawer down held T-shirts, bras, and pullovers, and the next, panties. Cotton briefs outnumbered silk panties by three to one, but among the latter a shiny black pair decorated with, of all things, miniature Orphan Annies, caught my eye. Front and back, the cipher-eyed urchin was embossed on the glossy black satin. I slipped them on, and then finished dressing, stuffing my white jockeys into the pocket of my jeans.

I went to the hall closet to get the Damp-Rid crystals. Just as instructed, I found a fresh box, shaped like a large milk carton, next to the vacuum cleaner bags. I filled each of the three containers with the crisp white flakes; there was just enough to fill all three, toxic vanilla snow-cones. Back in the living room, I glanced out at the lanai and noticed that some of the plants needed attention. I slid back the big glass door and a heavy damp aroma, the green vapor of the tropical outdoors quickly invaded the domestically neutral air of the living room. Enough rain, apparently, had splashed through the screens to keep the plants from dying, but there was a lot of old, dead growth. I got a pair of scissors and a plastic bag from the kitchen, and gave everything a good grooming. They all needed food and water. And there among several clay pots of arrowhead, I came across what was unmistakably—yup, a toilet seat. A white molded-plastic toilet seat, sitting upon a large stainless steel basin and planted with a Boston fern.

Outside, the sudden aural assault of a bellowing lawn mower was intensely annoying. As I headed for the car I watched myself, ridiculously, glaring at the grizzled lawn man on his riding mower, as if my indignation should bring a halt to this affront immediately. I slid into the car seat, and felt the satin panties slither against my buttocks. Then the Percocet hit. A wave of sunset, warm and Kodachromed, washed over me. I sat, immobilized, wondering what all the fuss was about. What fuss, exactly, I couldn’t say. Through a lethargy as thick as a foam rubber sofa, I forced the key into the ignition and the car sprang to wrong-end-of-a-telescope life. In the driveway, I waited for the kind old winemaker to pass in his horse-drawn cart, and then turned onto the modern street. My turn wasn’t quite sharp enough, however, and I watched the hood of the car dip through the swale on the far shoulder before straightening out and pointing toward the distant lights, the far traffic, the bookstore at the mall where I could sit with a cup of coffee, and read some poetry, and listen to Chopin on the headphones, and maybe meet somebody.