Phillip turned the car into the gravel driveway comforted by the grassy hump down its middle, the part that car tires hadn’t trampled down. The hump had grown since he was a child. He’d always thought it looked like something you’d find at an English country home. Maybe in the Cotswolds, though he hadn’t ever been there.
The old man sat on the porch staring out at him, a curious look that might have been mistaken for anxious, slowly pumping his legs to rock back and forth in its shade. When Phillip opened his car door the old man stopped rocking put his hands on the sides of the chair and lifted himself a few inches, sat back down, tried again, and with a grunt managed to stand up. It took him an eternity. Phillip wanted to run up and help, but knew better; the old man was serious about his dignity. When he was almost fully erect, he offered a limp wave, maybe a smile, and said, “Been waiting out here a while. A real scorcher.”
Phillip smiled back and retrieved his bag from the back along with the groceries his mother had asked him to pick up. “Leave those be,” said the old man. “They’re not going anywhere. Come and rest up after that trip.”
“Too hot, Dad.”
Phillip put the bags on the porch steps. He looked up to the yoo-hooing as his mother, looking very much like the part of the wizened old woman jogged to him drying her hands on her flowered apron, and gave her son a hug. “Here now. Give those to me. I’ll put them away. AC’s on. And I’ll bet you’re hungry, precious thing.”
“I’ll keep an eye on the bags,” said his old man.
“Those old eyes aren’t even good for a girly magazine. Besides, they’d melt out here. I’ll bring out some iced tea and lunch, so just sit yourself down and chill out.”
She went back inside juggling the bags in her arms and trying to push the door open with her foot. It was quite the balancing act. Her son was about to ask if she needed help, but she’d say no so he just held the door and watched her go in. Where on earth did she pick up the expression ‘chill out.’ She was still strong, his mom; still had her marbles. Most of them.
He pulled up a chair next to the rocker, moving it deeper into the shade. He looked out over the property. The garden looked a bit seedy but not too bad, and his father’s Volvo 240 wagon needed a wash.
“Jeez, Dad, how old is that thing? Christ, it’s got a McGovern sticker.”
“Old enough to know better and I picked up the McGovern sticker at a yard sale. The car drives fine and it’s paid off. Hell, I paid cash for her, come to think. Same time I paid off the mortgage. Same year I retired, for that matter. It’s been a while. 100 years, maybe.”
The old man sat back and pumped his legs to get the rocker going. He again mentioned it was a scorcher, fanning himself with a previous year’s edition of the New Yorker he’d picked up at a doctor’s office. He had a pile of magazines he’d picked up at one of his many doctor’s offices, and his son asked if he had any on fishing.
“There’s a Grey’s Sporting Journal in here somewhere. God, I used to love that magazine.” His father rummaged through a stack and handed the journal to his son. “This’ll do you.”
“2007? Dad, have you thought about a subscription for God’s sake. Forget that. I’ll get you one.”
His father stopped moving his legs and looked at him. Through the wrinkles, it was hard to tell if it was a frown or a smirk. “Money. Why spend money when I can get them for free? Used. That’s recycling, right? You’re into that. And I got to tell you, it’s about perspective.”
“Per-spec-tive.” He sounded out each syllable. “Per-spec-tive.” He explained that fishing doesn’t change from season to season, and those New Yorker cartoons from last year are just as funny as the new ones. “Old ones are even better. I don’t always get the new ones.” The old man about how they taught American History in his day. How the facts were the facts and he never could see much reason for changing textbooks other than newly-minted PhDs needing to publish. “Publish or perish.” He lost his thoughts in the life of an academic and started talking about political correctness before he returned to “per-spec-tive.”
He went on about saving money, and how when he was young people did things, it wasn’t all about status. He banged his fist softly on the side of the rocker and he spoke of the linoleum countertop they had in the kitchen, for, at least, 30 years, being as good as “marble or granite or that plastic corium stuff, right?” And a boatload cheaper.
“I had a camera,” he went on. “A Honeywell Pentax. Got it in 1963. Still was using it when we went on that Italy trip. Only stopped because you couldn’t get Kodachrome anymore. Nowadays, people buy cameras with a change in season. Crazy waste if you ask me.”
“I didn’t ask.”
“Well, you should. I must have learned something over all these years.”
His mother opened the door and came out with a tray of glasses half-filled with ice, a pitcher of iced tea, and a bowl of sugar. She set it down on the small table between the two men.
“Mom, do you have any Equal or stevia?”
“Oh, I don’t think so. Daddy usually steals it from the coffee shop, but we haven’t been there in a while. Your sister had it last.”
He poured glasses for himself and his father, and the old man put a heaping teaspoon of sugar into both.
“Whoa, Dad, I don’t want sugar.”
“That other stuff will kill you. Chemicals. All chemicals. Artificial sweetener means just that. No harm in a little sugar. Better than those chemicals.”
His son acquiesced with a smile and sipped the tea, enjoying the sweet granules that refused to melt in the cold liquid.
The old man leaned back, took his own sip, and looked to the trees, whose leaves were drooping in the heat. A hummingbird sipped at a red feeder that hung from the porch. He pointed to it with some effort.
“I love those little birds. Always have.” He tried to follow it as it buzzed away. “I don’t like to say this. We have to move.”
The son sat upright, a rush of heat hitting his face, not from the weather but from those words.
It was inevitable but still a shock. Dad was in his 90s, and the place needed constant work. They had talked about “when they’d have to move,” and his father always said he planned to die peacefully in his sleep like his father did – “and not like the screaming passengers in the car he was driving!” He meant it. He was an independent man of a different generation. The idea of staying put had been a source of stubborn pride for years. Hadn’t the old man tapped into his savings to build a bathroom on the first floor, one with a walk-in tub? Phillip couldn’t believe his father would spend that kind of money until the old man showed him it was cheaper than a year in a nursing home.
Moving had come up when he broke his hip a few years back, but, miraculously, the old man recovered fully and then some. He talked about hip replacements, knee replacements, and said at this rate he’d be brand new before he’d have to move, which would never happen anyway, “not over my dead body.”
As it turned out, he was all too serious about the ‘dead body.’ It was last fall when Phillip found a bottle of Oxycontin in the guest bathroom’s medicine cabinet. The old man had been spending more and more nights in that guestroom, tossing and turning, in his own words, so as not to keep his mother awake. He brought the pills down to his father’s den, shaking the container, weighing its contents, trying to guess how many were in there. Phillip had made it a habit of cleaning up expired cans and medicines when he came over.
“Dad, you shouldn’t have these around. They’re too powerful for you. At your age, I mean. If you don’t need them, throw them out.”
“Leave them be. They’re there for a reason.”
“What, you’re dealing now?”
His father squinted, turned away for a second, and then back to his son. “It’s not always easy, you know. Getting old. I’m happy, led a good life. Hell, still lead a good one. But I see where it’s going. The destination’s fine, it’s the journey.”
The old man looked away again, staring out the window. Phillip’s eyes followed, but only saw the lawn and thought it could do with a watering.
“You remember Bill Webster?” It wasn’t a question. The old man recalled how Bill Webster had coached Little League 40 years—“Had a team, not yours, make it to state championships once.” Bill Webster—“That handsome sonofabitch”—was a paratrooper on D-Day. Bill Webster was the local dermatologist—“cleaned up more zits for the senior prom than all the lies Nixon told.” A good guy was what his father called him, which was high praise from the old man. “He was losing it. Alzheimer’s, I guess. Goes into a nursing home—a memory facility—all locked up like some criminal. I went to visit. Bill didn’t know me at first but came around. Know what he told me? He said he’d rather be dead than there. ‘My advice to you my friend,’ he said to me is to ‘do what you can, anything, to stay out of this urine-stinking place.’ He was dead two weeks later.”
“I’m not. Know why? His wife, against the rules of the place, brought him a bottle of single malt, and he drank it with a handful of some pills. She found him dead as a doornail, in bed, dressed in real clothes with a smile on his face.” And that’s why I have the pills. Just in case. Which is also why all my papers, all my affairs, are well in order. Bottom drawer on the right side of my desk. File says, ‘When I’m dead.’ I don’t like mincing words.”
With amazing speed for a man his age, he leaned over toward his son, eyes looking teary, and grabbed the bottle of pills. They didn’t discuss the matter again. Until now, it seemed.
He looked at his father pumping his legs to get the rocker moving, then stared over the property, at the garden, weedier than it used to be, crabgrass on the once-proud lawn. Phillip’s eyes shifted to the porch, which could use a new paint job. He looked over the brown grass imagining snow forts when a storm would close the schools. He had to wait for the Ws to hear about his town on the old radio in the kitchen and would yell “yee hah.” He’d be undressed by halfway up the stairs running to change into his play clothes.
His home. The home he grew up in. His old room hadn’t changed since he left for college. He could almost smell the combination of sweat and the marijuana he’d smoke with the window wide open. For the first time in years, he realized how much he loved the place. It was home, more his home than where he lived now. His mind flooded with parties his parents held, he and his sister spying on the adults from the top of stairs until his father would catch them and bring them downstairs. Had he really let them sip whiskey sours?
He was ten during that dry summer when he and Billy Egan were burning ants with magnifying glasses and making small fires on yellowed grass. The fire had gotten out of control and spread to the woods behind them. He cried the whole time, even as the fire department put it out, imagining how he could have been hurt or hurt someone, and fearing he’d go to hell, at least catch hell. He had singed his hair and looked like a Beatle, which was, he thought, kind of cool and just made him feel worse.
But his father had only asked if he was okay and then taught him how to make a safe campfire. To make sure it was out, they’d peed on it.
His mind raced back to friends coming over and playing in the old attic, and finding trunks of old clothes, his father’s moth-eaten uniform, a pistol he’d had during the war, which his father then threw away. And, he’d forgotten about this, a wedding photo of him with a woman who wasn’t his mother, a first wife whom he said had died, but actually divorced. No kids, but he used to dream of a brother somewhere looking for him.
He recalled carrying Jack up the steps when he was born, and now he was visiting with his grandson, who would never get to know this house, this wonderful house with its nooks and crannies and hiding places and old, good smells of fireplaces and baking. And how he wouldn’t know his great grandfather from more than stories.
So, the stubborn old, proud guy was giving in finally. Where to? He didn’t need a nursing home. Smaller house on one level? Apartment? Assisted living? They had looked at options in the last few years but wouldn’t discuss them. No, those were contingencies. And now, now they were real. He wondered if his father had a sense of urgency. Well, it’s time, inevitable, he thought.
His father’s rocking had slowed and his eyes were starting to shut. He took the glass of iced tea from his hand so he wouldn’t drop it but roused the old man.
“Hey, I’m not done. Get your own.”
“You were nodding off.”
“I was closing my eyes, not nodding off. Anyway, give that back. I’m parched.”
He handed the tea back and the old man took a long swallow, finishing with a satisfying, “ahhhh,” followed by a “fill ‘er up.”
He poured some more, and his father added two hefty spoonfuls of sugar and stirred, licking the spoon when he was done, and adding a third with a wink to his son.
“Dad, what do you have in mind?”
“Huh, what do you mean?”
Phillip tried to smile. Had the old man forgotten what they were talking about? Maybe he just didn’t want to discuss it anymore. Still, as difficult as it was, Phllip felt he had to push the issue. Before he spoke again, he took a sip of iced tea, added a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine he was about to bring up go down—his father was right about the sugar—and clear any sadness he was sure his voice would reveal.
“You said ‘it was time to move.’ I know that’s hard, I know. But it’ll be fine. Better. What do you have in mind? What does Mom say?”
His father looked at him, bemused, a sparkle in his eyes that made him look a decade younger. He put down the tea and leaned forward.
“I don’t know what Mom has in her mind, but whatever it is it’s a sound mind. I’m not so sure about yours. Me? Jesus H. Christ. Boy, it’s hot as hell out here. It’s time to move alright…inside. AC’s and the Red Sox are playing the Yankees…Go Sox! You coming?”