By J Hirtle
He had already made up his mind. He will not look at the sorry son-of-a-bitch. Not at those eyes. Eyes the color of summer rain. Nobody knows what hides behind the eyes.
Everybody knows that.
The endless drivel has been going on too long. He doesn't care who is wrong or who is right. A position easily assumed when one knows he is right. And he didn’t care how long their friendship went back. Hell, could he even call it that anymore? It was an ugly misfortune of latitudes intersecting at the same place at the exact same time. The place—Misty Oaks Assisted Living and Memory Care Center. The time—sixty years after moving into a home on Renfro Street, in a town that is little more than a bump on the highway for travelers needing gas on their way to the big city. A small, nothing-to-do-after-sunset town. But it was there he first experienced his first real home. A home with indoor plumbing, one and a half baths, and a real back yard. His daddy had bought a swing set from Sears and Roebuck and they put it together one summer evening as the katydids croaked obedience. Just a father and his son as Momma watched and drank lemonade with the lady next door. The first home with a next door. The first town with someone you could call a neighbor. The first time he had seen those eyes.
“You can’t keep not looking at me,” the other suggests.
A true, honest to God old man harrumph is the only return proffered.
“Did you ever think, if we reflect on this conundrum together, we might remember what was so damn important about remembering?”
Turning his chair, adjusting his line of sight further to the east, “It is not about remembering, you old fool.”
“How do you know that if you can’t remember? To continue down this fractured path is glaringly a waste of time. Please, look at me!”
Rolling his eyes, “Got plenty of time. Pissing away the excess don’t mean shit, fire, or fuzzy to me.”
“Until you run out it.” The other chuckles.
Another turn, slightly more than the first. His eyes catch movement in the hallway outside the door. The door is always open during daytime hours. The pastel wardens (for that is what he has come to think of them as) are always making sure you’re not sleeping away what is left of your miserable life. Not a thing in the world wrong with a little catnap. Or two. Maybe three. Wide awake now, he watches the girl; she is talking to someone out of his line of sight. She smiles and talks, talks, and smiles.
“She looks like her,” the other says, pausing before continuing, as if a question had been posed, “No, not then! When you first met her. Working behind the counter at the Five and Dime. Her hair is different. But the same smile. Yes, she looks just like her, don’t you concur?”
“Looks like who?”
“You don’t remember her?” Not concealing the sadness.
“Can’t remember something you never knew, you old fool.”
“Why don’t you kiss my hairy ass.”
“Well, that is just a lovely image.”
A smile surfaces on the old man’s face. Stealing a quick glance towards the other, making sure he hadn’t seen the slip. He will make a big deal out of it. Always does. Vanity runs deep.
The smile burrows into the land from whence it came. Why doesn’t he just leave me alone. Pressing, pressing, pressing. Wanting to remember. What is so fucking great about remembering? Memories come and go. Some stay gone for good reason. That is just a fact.
Everybody knows that.
He pushes back in the chair, closing his eyes. It felt like their argument had gone on longer than—
“Now what the hell was I doing?” the old man mumbles, scratching his unshaven face. Looking down, he flips the levers, unlocking the wheels, “I can remember to do that, you son-of-a-bitch,” he tells the other before standing and rubbing his hip. With a shuffle and intentional gaseous discharge, he walks to the window, having forgotten the other is watching. The white tee-shirt he wears over his thinning frame, displaying the evidence of morning’s breakfast, rises and falls with emphysematic grace. Rattled breathing, a constant and unforgettable companion, beckons wandering thoughts like the Pied Piper’s magical flute. Placing his hand on the window, he can feel the cold.
The velvet frost which had covered the well-manicured lawn has succumbed to the morning sun, house slippers, and wheelchairs. The latter leaving traces from cobblestone paths to the oversized gazebo wrapped by a gently climbing ramp (added to accommodate rolling visitors), like Dorothy’s yellow bricks leading to the emerald Oz. The young smiling girl is there, pushing an old frowning woman wearing two wool scarves and matching slippers, over the waking lawn. He wipes at the window with the side of his hand, hoping the innocuous gesture will somehow better his diminished vision.
From behind him, far away, “She does look like her, you know.”
He closes his eyes again. Gray and black concentric circles spin like metallic lawn art. What are they called? Whirly—whirly something. But with color. Kodachrome. When I think back to all the crap…
“Whirligigs. The word is whirligigs.”
He opens his eyes—The velvet frost which had covered the well-manicured lawn has succumbed to the morning sun, house slippers, and wheelchairs…she’s there…no, that’s not right…
“Why don’t you come here? I want to see your face. We must put an end to this tireless, boorish argument. I will convince you; surely you are wrong. Or, if you prefer, certainly I am right.”
The old man says nothing.
“Remembering is not as difficult as you think. I promise you will not get hurt—again. And in the end, either you or I will be declared winner.”
“Have it your way,” he whispers.
“It will be the same either way," the other replies.
“Did you forget again?”
He leans his head against the window, letting the coolness linger against his hot skin. Eyes half open, movement crosses the glass. Not from outside. A reflection. Someone passing in the hall.
“It’s her,” the other sings.
A tear crawls over thin lashes the color of sun-bleached wheat. A crooked finger ends the life of the mateless tear.
“Something in your eye?”
The old man shuffles back to the chair, brown slippers lined with crushed fleece murmuring sad songs.
“I think I will go to breakfast,” he tells the room.
“You already did. Come here, I will show you the proof.”
“Go away. Leave me alone.”
“I can’t do that. Until you do. And you know very well, I could never leave you alone. Well, except for when the lights are out. Then you are on your own, old friend.”
“I am not your friend.”
“But you are old. That could be where this little problem stems from, wouldn’t you agree?”
“Very well then, shall we resume the debate? I posit you can remember. You surmise you cannot.”
“No!” The other chuckles like a mother correcting a silly child, “To recite one close by—no, you old fool. Not her. That memory, I am afraid is gone forever. The big adios. On the wrong side of the grass, checked out, counting worms, dearly departed…”
“Wiped out,” a pause, “like lipstick words on a mirror.”
The old man’s hands come up to his unshaven face. The whiskers are stiff against his fingers yet bend to his touch. He pushes his cheeks up, blurring his eyes. A memory from so long ago.
“Look at me,” the other offers, voice as soothing as a warm bath.
The old man pushes himself up from the chair, commanding his legs to move. Legs refuse. Head spins. Breathing quickens.
“Come here now.”
One step, followed by a second. Two more. He leans against the bathroom sink. The marbled countertop is littered with the things old men need.
“Look at me.”
He turns his head up. The other stares back at him from reflective glass, his eyes the color of summer rain.
The man in the mirror smiles, “Now tell me, what is your name?”
“See. You remembered! Now, pick up the razor…”