The big woman pounded on the door again.
Ed knew it was her. That obnoxious beast. Every morning. He thought of calling her a word that he would never say.
“TIME FOR PICKLEBALL,” she boomed.
“Go away!” Ed said to the door.
After a pause, she repeated herself. “DO YOU WANT TO PLAY PICKLEBALL,” she boomed again.
She had a voice like a battering ram. Ed had been up since 3:30 as always, watching the clock, waiting. His legs hurt from the neuropathy. If he flat refused her, or they thought he was asleep, they would give him his medicine late and it wouldn't happen. He hated the medicine. It lessened the pain but it took his mind with it.
Ed leaned out of his wheelchair towards the door and spoke louder. “I refuse your offer of pickleball,” Ed said, looking at the door. “I'd still like my medicine on time. Do I need to repeat myself again?”
The door stayed closed. Doris, whose full title at Autumn Living Estates was Senior Lifestyle Specialist, had hair that climbed straight towards the ceiling like the tower of Babel and arms like a lumberjack. She opened the door only slightly. It was still dark. But she lay the bottle of pills on the bedside table which was what he wanted her to do, so he could take it when she was ready.
“Maybe she'll leave us alone now. That idiot woman is desperate for someone to play pickleball with her,” he said to Marjorie, who he thought was asleep. He didn't expect a response.
“It's her job, Ed,” she sighed. So she was awake. He had been waiting for her to arise since he himself had woken up in the dark and gone to his wheelchair. “We pay her for this and it's her job. Try to have a positive attitude,” she said.
“We've been here a week and I hate it. I can't stand it. I'm ready to leave. Let's just go.” He put a hand on the bottle of cough syrup.
Marjorie rolled over. He could get angry but this was different, more hostile. “It's a decision we made together. You agreed to it. Kit and Jack agreed to it. Please stop complaining.”
“We had a house in Ohio. We could have-”
She stopped when she noticed the first brown fall leaf on the outside windowsill of the room. So that was the reason. She had almost lost track of time. It passed differently, now. It had been summer the last time she had paid attention.
“That house had fifteen steps into the front door and no place for a wheelchair ramp. You need to give this a chance, Ed,” she said, trying to measure her words. “It's not going to be as bad as you think. At least we get to spend time together. Think about what happened to her husband. What's happening to her, now.” She gestured towards the door with the extension of her fingers and an open hand. “Not everyone gets this privilege. She's not going to get this privilege. It's not like there are any guarantees at our age, or at any age. Try to make the best of this.”
The reality was unspoken. Michael had lived in that house in Columbus. The ramp had nothing to do with it. He was mentioning the house because he wanted to talk about it, but still he didn't. He would own that house but never live there because of their son and so Kit and Jack would get it someday. Try to make the best of rotting, Ed thought.
The apartment, as they called it, was barely a room. The brochure had shown smiling people, active people, stimulation. The kids had sold it to him, somehow, as a chance to do his writing, his research, to have all his meals prepared and to focus, finally, on what he wanted. He could still keep the manuscripts from the university that he had been working on. The computer would let him participate in academic conferences. And they showed him pictures of the library, that beautiful wood-adorned endless hall of books like something out of Borges. He had been sold on the library.
But the reality was the library was open two hours a day. You couldn't go to the dining room without stumbling over somebody with a catheter or someone having a bowel movement where they weren't supposed to, and the kids were supposed to bring his papers and they hadn't even done that yet. It was pitiful. They were spending every dollar they had ever saved on a warehouse for their golden years. You should move into these places when you've lost your mind and not a moment before.
He sat back in his wheelchair and felt grumpy. Marjorie rolled over and looked at him. They had kept their separate beds, for now. But he thought about asking her if he could climb into her bed and lie next to her for awhile. He knew they didn't have long before the day carried them away from a chance at intimacy. She had lovely hair, even still, and gorgeous eyes. But he didn't want to bother her with the effort it would take to call the nurse to move him. Not yet. His legs were too weak.
“Did you take your medication yet,” she asked. “You're not yourself.”
“I did. This morning.”
“You're lying,” she said. “The kids are going to find out. They'll make the nurse give it to you if you don't do it yourself.”
“I never agreed to take that stuff. It's much more pleasant without it.”
“Ed, I know that, but you need it to keep your thoughts clear. If you get more confused they'll separate us. Come on now.”
“Who could separate us?”
She stopped and looked at him seriously and rolled her eyes upwards.
“I'll take it with breakfast,” he said. “Why do I have to be in a hurry?” The medicine changed his thinking and he hated it.
She knew what he wanted, that he needed a moment, and she told him it was alright with her eyes. The medicine was necessary but could wait. Nothing would change with a moment. He wheeled the chair closer to her bed.
When they had first met, decades ago, he had been walking home, drunk, depressed and she had offered him a ride home. He had refused her. She had sat in the garage for half an hour before going back to find him with the Studebaker, and it had taken her two hours to find him still walking down the street. She was ten years his senior and already had one failed marriage before him. She thought about his soft hands as they had touched in the car, all those years ago, and how soft they were still, even now.
“It took me a long time to find you,” she said. “Why should I be in a hurry to let you go?”
She was buried under the sheet. His eyesight was poor. There was a moment of panic where he reached for her, under the bed linens, and she wasn't there. It took a moment to find her with his hands.
But after a moment he made contact. The bed was the right height for him to sit next to it while she lay resting. He sat and stroked the pallor of her scalp gently.
“You should try socializing,” she said while they sat together. “Meet some people. It would help you enjoy living here more. Pass the time.”
“Why do I want to be with those people? They've all lost their minds. I'd rather just be dead already. I'd rather be with you.”
“Not all of them have lost their minds. You need to quit talking like that. Friends help, Ed. You should make friends. Be with people other than me. ”
“Just tell me that I'll always have you,” he said after they had spent a moment, sitting together quietly. “My beautiful friend who remembers.”
That poem. They had read Sandberg at the funeral. She thought about the brown crunch of leaves underfoot as her brother and uncle had carried the casket uphill. Every fall it was this way. This was the source of the fury inside this gentle, hurting man who was drying up on the outside. The loss was as hollowing as the trees she had planted in the front yard of that house in Ohio but would now never get back to. Inside she hurt terribly, too even years later. She had hoped time and everything that had happened would diminish the hurt but she had found that it didn't, not really. You still feel pain. That was the biggest surprise.
Her mother had told her long ago it was against the rules, that she shouldn't be the one to come to him this way. A man wanted to provide for a woman and not the other way around. But she had to comfort him.
“You know I'd break down heaven's door just to get to you,” she said. It was a tease but the sentiment was unfailing. “I'll come find you when it's time.”
They listened to what was left of summer in the tiny blue room and thought about autumn which had arrived only halfway.
“Do you want to read me a poem?” she said, finally. She knew the one he would choose. It was the same every time. He wanted to remember the sadness too. And then he would let her sleep.
Ed sighed and took the medication which was lying on the beside table. He'd never be able to read with his eyes but it was memorized. “Under the harvest moon,” he began, “When the soft silver drips shimmering, over the garden nights...”
Doris and the other nurse, who was named Jackie and was new, came in to the room. They saw the withered man sitting beside the fully made bed, his hands in the air. Jackie was alarmed. The work still bothered her, but she was glad to have it, and needed the money. She was divorced, had lost her parents. And not only that. She hadn't told Doris about her test results, though Doris seemed like someone she could trust. The loneliness for her in some of the elderly could be overwhelming, in a way that was hard for her to describe. It made her think of her own mortality.
“Don't worry about this,” said Doris, ”it's his normal. I've known Ed for a long time. He's been here for ten years or so. He was actually my high school English teacher. Doesn't get a lot of visitors but he's calm.”
He was gesturing towards the other, unmade bed and they helped lie down on half of it.
“Does Ed have a --” Jackie asked as she laid him down in the single twin bed, on top of the mattress. She gestured to the other bed with rumpled sheets where he must have slept. Doris shushed her and looked Ed over. He accepted the offer of medicine easily but said nothing. After a moment he shut his eyes.
“You want me to take up the extra pillow?” Jackie asked.
“No, it helps him actually if we leave it there. Still having a lot of hallucinations.”
They turned to leave. Jackie looked back at the half open door where Ed was lying, alone. She went back to him and propped the pillow up beside his twig-thin body and gathered her jacket against the chill which was coming through the walls and gathering around her. Somehow the window had come open and the wind was blowing in and she closed it tight before leaving.