It seemed like the old car had grown another inch last night.
Arthur Jones had already tried to climb into the vehicle twice, but with no success. Gearing up for a third attempt, he gripped the steering wheel, planted his cane in the ground, and swung a leg up with feigned vigor. He failed to reach the running board yet again, so he sulked away, too breathless and defeated for another try.
He trudged away from the car and sat on the bench that he had built nearly 20 years ago. The design was his own, made with thick oak legs and heavy slats to support himself, his wife, and the many grandkids they were expecting. He ran his deeply calloused fingers along the armrest, remembering how he spent hours shaping and sanding, drawing out the dark grain living underneath the rough surfaces of the repurposed timber.
At least this old thing is still strong, he thought.
He sat and inspected the dents on the faded-navy Ford Bronco parked in front of him before checking his watch. 9:06.
Should’ve been on the road ten minutes ago, he thought. What is taking her so long?
He looked back at the car and cursed under his breath, vexed by its apparent increase in height and his concurrent decrease in strength. His wife Alice would have to help him into the Bronco again, which she did with increasing frequency the past few years. A different car would save his energy and his pride.
“We should wait,” Alice always said when Arthur pressed about the possibility of buying a newer—and smaller—vehicle. “Marc said he’ll help us with payments if we wait until Lily graduates college.”
But Arthur never knew his oldest son Marc to be so charitable. Besides, Lily was only a Freshman in high school, if he remembered correctly. So he tried harder and harder every day to swing his leg onto the running board and climb into the old Ford—when that didn’t work, he waited for Alice.
His watch now read 9:10 in big, digital font, and still no Alice. He didn’t think another attempt at the vehicle would be worth the effort, so he sat with his thoughts.
In their 53 years of marriage, it was not uncommon for Arthur to be kept waiting. A few minutes here and there never bothered him—he used to watch This Old House while she freshened up before dinner, and he could sit in the Bronco for ages listening to his Slippery When Wet CD when she spent extra time in the office. At times Arthur waited longer, like when a flat tire on Alice's 1960 Ford Fairlane delayed their first date by more than an hour.
But minutes and hours could turn into days, weeks, or even years, as was the case for the newer and smaller car. Arthur had only planned to work construction for a few years while he paid for Alice’s college; he would go to school himself after she graduated. He spent every day in the draining summer sun driving nails, hoisting headers, and thinking about sitting in air-conditioned classrooms instead of building them.
“It’ll only add two years,” she said on the day of her graduation. “It’s the best master’s program in the state, and we can afford it. You’re making more money now than ever. I have to do it. You can wait—right?”
It was true—at that time, he was earning more than he ever thought he could as a carpenter, and it would be much harder for Alice to enter the program if she took time off. So he waited. But two more years of school turned out to be two years plus two kids, and instead of searching for classes to attend he searched for new homes to accommodate their growing family.
Time flies, he thought. Arthur glanced at his watch—9:13. I’ll go in at 9:15. Maybe she needs a reminder that it’s a 20 minute drive. And that we’re already late for the appointment.
Arthur wanted to check on her but did not like the idea of walking back into the house. Years of hard labor sanded down all the cartilage between his joints. His knees ached with every step and it became increasingly difficult to mount the small set of stairs that led out of the garage. His walking cane that he had crafted 15 years prior only served to remind him of the incessant ache in his wrists; the hammer blows still echoing through his bones.
“I shouldn’t wait any longer,” he muttered. 9:17 had come, and Alice was still somewhere in the house. Taking a deep breath, he leaned forward, pressing firmly on his thighs as he heaved himself off the bench. He felt the bones in his ankles grind together as they cracked into place and began to support his weight. Turning toward the stairs, he leaned onto the cane, placed another hand on the railing, and swung his leg onto the first step. He took a few labored breaths and collected himself. Only 3 more steps.
It was 9:22 before he made it into the house, and there was no sign of Alice. A few drops of sweat escaped his brow as he slogged toward their bedroom.
“Alice,” he shouted. No response. His breathing became shallow as he marched on, his mind beginning to race.
Out of breath, Arthur arrived at the bathroom door and rapped with his cane. No response. His heart fluttered.
Her ears aren’t what they used to be. She’s alright, he assured himself.
Moments passed, and still nothing. A layer of sweat had formed between his leathery hands and the wooden cane. Arthur knocked again.
“Alice, I’m coming in.”
He turned the handle and burst through the door, nearly falling over as he turned his head violently from side to side, scanning the room. On the far side of the bathroom, he saw Alice. Not lying on the floor as he had expected, but seated on the tiles, hugging her knees to her chest. She was crying.
He shuffled toward her, used his cane to close the lid of the toilet beside her, and sat down. The sound of his wheezing filled the space.
“Alice,” he breathed.
She did not look at him. All at once, her whole body began to tremble, and she broke out into a violent sob. She hid her face between her knees, barely muffling the cries of agony and anguish. Arthur put his heavy hand on her shoulder and said nothing.
The cries sputtered to a halt. She raised her head and wiped away the myriad tears that veiled her wrinkled face. Slowly, she began to laugh.
“She left the oven on,” Alice said. “Forgot she was cooking. Nearly burned the house down.” Another chuckle. “Smelled like burnt blueberry pie for weeks.”
She turned to look up at Arthur. “My mom,” she said.
He squeezed her shoulder and looked into her strong brown eyes, tears still streaking down her cheeks.
“I walked into the bathroom and forgot why I was here” she said. “The bathroom, Arthur.” She giggled, and a soft, distant smile appeared on her face.
“The doctor is going to tell us what we already know. You forget what you’re doing, why you’re doing it. Names, dates, places—” she paused. “People.” Her mouth twisted and she hurried to look away. “The last time I saw my mom, she didn’t know my name. She didn’t even recognize me.”
Alice let her head fall back down as she broke into a million pieces in front of Arthur. She wailed and pulled her knees tightly, as if holding on to the person she was in that moment, afraid of what would happen if she let go.
Arthur sat and listened as she cried. He knew how hard it was on Alice when her mother’s dementia worsened. Alice deteriorated mentally, physically, and emotionally, right alongside her mother. Until the end. Now she was about to go through it all again.
He said nothing.
Alice collected herself, wiped away all traces of sadness from her face, and turned to Arthur. He didn’t know when she had leaned against him and placed her hand on his, but it felt good to support her. He was at least strong enough to do that.
“Can you wait a few more minutes?” she asked, sniffling between words. She flashed an exhausted smile.
Arthur smiled back. He looked at Alice, the bathroom around her turning to static as tears crept into the corners of his eyes.
“Please, Arthur?” she said. He pulled her hand up to his lips and gave her fingers a gentle kiss.
“I can wait,” he said.