Getting old is no fun. The worst thing about it is that you hurt all the time. I’ve got a bum knee and a bad hip. Old war wounds. I don’t know what I would do without Advil. My cousin, who is younger than I am, says old age is not for sissies, and I agree.

When you get to be sixty, your friends start dropping like flies. I lost another one last year. An old college buddy died of cancer. It was his second go-round on the cancer front. He had colon cancer, but he survived that. A few years later, the disease showed up in his liver, and that got him. A few years ago another friend discovered that he had a tumor the size of a golf ball in one of his lungs. They took that out, and he’s still alive and kicking. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. You’re always looking over your shoulder when you’re old enough to keep an AARP card in your wallet.

My wife, who is twenty years younger than I am, watches me like a hawk. She’s worried that I will get senile or develop Alzheimer’s, both of which run in my family. Forget about it, I tell her. I’m fine. Worry about me when I get to be eighty. That seems to be the pattern. All my aunts and uncles on my mother’s side got dotty at the end. The good news is that they lived to be eighty or ninety.

I tell my wife to stop holding her breath. I’m fine, I say. As long as I can work the crossword puzzle, I’m okay. The New York Times crossword puzzle: that’s my Alzheimer’s test, I tell her. When I can’t do the Friday or Saturday puzzle, then you can start worrying.

One day last week, I came back from my walk and discovered that I had lost my house keys. Unfortunately, my wife was home; it was her day off. I had to drive across town to the business park where I take my morning constitutional. I found the keys in the parking lot.

The next day my wife told the story to everybody at work. They all thought it was pretty funny. I accused her of stopping strangers on the street to tell them about her mentally incompetent husband.

Actually, old age is a laughing matter–if aches and pains and the occasional lapse of memory are all you have to worry about. When it gets serious is when you are very old. I learned this last year when my mother, who’s ninety-one, had a stroke. She survived, but the life she lives today is no life, or so it seems to me. She can’t talk or feed herself. She spends her days in bed or in a wheelchair, looking out the window. She doesn’t seem to be in any discomfort or distress. It is as if the blow that took away her mind mercifully took her feelings as well.

And then there’s Walter. Walter is an old Dutchman that I met in 1988 when I first started going to AA meetings in the city where I now make my home. Walter was old then, in his eighties. At that time he had been sober for forty years. There were other old farts at that meeting, but nobody else had as much sobriety as Walter. I loved sitting next to Walter at meetings. I’d sit between Walter and another senior citizen named Frank, and when it was my turn to talk, I’d brag that between the three of us-Walter, Frank, and I-we had over seventy-five years of sobriety. Since I had been sober for only a few months, that always got a laugh.

I began driving Walter to meetings after that. I guessed that at his age, he had trouble driving at night, so I asked him if he would like me to pick him up, and to my surprise, he said yes. I was surprised because Walter is an independent cuss. Touchy, too. He wasn’t offended, however. He seemed to like the idea of having taxi service.

I drove Walter to meetings for ten years. I didn’t expect my tour of duty to be that long, but that’s the way it worked out. At first I didn’t mind; I enjoyed Walter’s company. Walter had a checkered past, as he would tell you himself. He had some wonderful stories to tell. Once he walked from Niagara Falls, New York, to Oakland, California, he told me. It was in the winter, too. The year was 1923. He was seventeen years old, he said. He hitched rides and hopped freight trains, but most of the time he walked. I asked Walter why he left New York, and he said it was because of a woman. He had a girlfriend in Oakland.

He had other stories to tell, too, stories from his drinking days, some of which he told in meetings and some he didn’t. He often told his bus to Portland story in meetings, about how he woke up one morning in a bus station in Portland, Oregon, not knowing where he was or why he was there. The last thing he remembered he was drinking beer at a bar in Oakland. He told about waking up in jail, too, and being told by somebody in another cell that he had shot a cop. It wasn’t true, but Walter didn’t find that out until they let him go.

Some stories he didn’t tell in meetings were how he quit smoking and how he lost his teeth. He threw his cigarettes out the window one morning, he said, because he had a cold, and they didn’t taste good. His teeth got the same treatment. He was having trouble with his teeth, so he walked into a dentist’s office and told the dentist to pull them all, which he did. Afterwards, as he was leaving the office, he almost passed out, Walter said. Tough old bird, that Walter.

Walter began to fail badly a year or so ago. His hearing went first, then his legs. Taking him to meetings became a chore, but, I told my wife, it was the only way he got out of the house at all. I’d like to have a tape recording of some of our conversations on the drive in recent months.

Me: Blah, blah, blah.

Walter: What?

Walter could walk, more or less, with the help of a cane, but getting him in and out of my truck was an adventure.

They put Walter’s wife in a nursing home two years ago, and about a month ago they did the same thing to Walter. They’re both in Sunset Acres in Hayward. Walter didn’t go quietly. I got the story from Mae, a shirttail relative of Walter’s wife, who in recent years had looked after the old couple in exchange for room and board. I don’t know if what Mae told me is fact or fiction-probably a bit of both-but this is what she said.

Walter got sick, and Mae called Veronica, Walter’s daughter-in-law, because Walter wouldn’t go to the hospital. Veronica called for an ambulance, but when she did, all she got was a busy signal, so she called 9-1-1. The fireman arrived first, and they tried to get Walter into the emergency van without much luck until they strapped him onto a gurney.

“He smacked one of them,” Mae said.

“He hit a fireman?” I asked.

Mae said she had gone down to the firehouse the next day to apologize. “You should see his face,” she said. “It’s black and blue.”

I told the AA folks about Walter’s little adventure, and most of them thought it was pretty funny. They seemed to be more delighted than surprised that Walter had hit a fireman. I had everyone sign a card that I brought with me to the meeting, and a day or so later, I went to see Walter at Sunset Acres.

As far as senior homes go, Sunset Acres is neither the best nor the worst, but believe me, I wouldn’t want to live there. The place has “last stop” written all over it. There are lots of people in blue or white coats bustling around, and lots of pale, wrinkled old people in sweat clothes sitting in wheelchairs.

I didn’t recognize Walter when I saw him. He was sitting in the corner of one of the common rooms, his chin on his chest. One of the employees roused him for me and wheeled him out to the foyer where I could sit down and get a good look at him.

He seemed okay, not in any distress. We talked for a few minutes, or rather I talked and he listened. He kept nodding off. I put the card that his AA friends had signed into his hands, and he looked at that for awhile, and he seemed to be pleased.

“Tell me one thing, Walter,” I said just before I left. “Did you really pop a fireman?”

That seemed to rouse him. He smiled. “Maybe,” he whispered.

When I left, I looked back, half expecting him to be shaking his fist at me, his eyes bright with mischief and defiance, but his chin was back on his chest.

After a Fight

a collection of micro-fiction by Liesl Jobson
([email]jobson [at] freemail [dot] absa [dot] co [dot] za[/email])


At 19, the gold band on my child-thin hand was a ligature binding an artery of joy.

A gangrenous bomb ticked under my skin as the sharp metal chafed my swelling flesh.

Before the surgeon (sterilized in righteousness) removed my finger I visited the jeweler — and smiled as he cut off instead my wedding ring.

[b]After a Fight[/b]

Defeated, I speed read books, thrash through webzines, hum mournfully and dive into debt.

When I’m spent and broke, my conqueror says, “Write”. The echo returns unbidden and involuntary, “Right!”

The words inside pit against the words without: mine against his, ours against theirs.

Something has to give:
Write-right… write-right…

His order is official and the music starts. Rhythm shuffles, the mood shakes loose. Stiff first, forgetful and clumsy, but the boogie begins. Soon, though, we fly and swim, spend and sing.

Left-right… quite right!

We make up, my pen and I.

[b]Garden Goodbye[/b]

I’m coming Gran, I said on the phone.

Don’t worry about me, lad, I’m ready to go.

We went for tea at sumptuous Kirstenbosch, the botanical gardens where my grandparents courted.

Her eyes shone like the diamond brooch she wore on their wedding day. The elegant clasp held a parrot-orange shawl over a white silk blouse and a jade and turquoise skirt.

Her wrinkled lips were painted red and blue-veined fingers fluttered coquettishly through her feathery hair.

In the atrium I said grandpa would have liked the new development.

He does, she said.

We strolled up to a shady bench. She perched with lids half-closed, swaying slowly in the sun.

Don’t worry about me, lad, I’m ready to go.

Her eyes closed, her beak-mouth smiled. A mossie flew off and Gran left too.

[b]Twelve Weeks Prem[/b]

Water, not urine flowed from me and I was mystified. Too late for mother craft classes, too early for birth — we burst open, Gail and I.

Guilt, not champagne flowed over my one-kilo kid caught in a web that breathed, fed and drugged her. I could only watch and sing.

Like the ox that gored the farmer’s wife she fought death — though she was too tiny for my nipple. I waited and knitted doll-sized booties.

Now those horns butt against her vegetables and violin, and I celebrate.

[b]Between Dreams[/b]

In the small hours, the starlit arch of your foot covers the bridge of mine.

Sweet nothings and profound everythings whispered in our sleepless bliss stir slumbering angels who dream-smile as they remember peace on earth.

Only in America

I had a doctor’s appointment the day the passenger jet lost its tail and made an unscheduled stop in Queens. My wife called from work to tell me about it. Sick to my stomach, I searched the online news websites for details. Nobody had much information.

I went outside and smoked a cigarette. The sky above the hills to the east was a wash of pink and gold. To the west, behind the house, rain clouds the colors of ashes were bunched like fists.

Later it began to rain. The water pounded on the roof, sending the cats flying for the bedroom, where they huddled cheek to jowl beneath the bed.

My appointment was a routine matter. I go in every six months to have my blood checked. I think my doctor feels the need to lecture me on the evils of smoking every once-in-a-while as well.

After the checkup, I went to lunch with my wife, who works in the clinic, and one of the other nurses. Later the doctor joined us. Nobody said anything about the tragedy in New York. The conversation was office gossip and chitchat.

The medical folks, knowing what was what about calories and cholesterol, ate lightly. Without apology or a twinge of conscience, I wolfed down a ham and egg salad sandwich and a piece of pumpkin pie.

The next morning the news was better. The Northern Alliance had waltzed into Kabul, and the guys in black hats were heading for the hills.

Weekdays I go for a walk in the morning with a friend. Our walking trail is a par course that winds through a business park on the southern edge of the city. On our walk that day, my friend told me that the Baptists were up in arms about the Harry Potter movie. According to them, it was satanic. I pointed out that the Bible has some wild and crazy stuff in it, too. My friend said that our religious nuts were as bad as the Muslims. My friend believes in God, but he doesn’t care much for religion.

Wednesday morning I read a story on the CNN Website about the rebels taking over a radio station in the Afghanistan capital and hiring women to read the news. Oh boy, I thought. Maybe we should hire the cowboys to do our public relations, too!

I checked my e-mail, and there was a message from my cousin in Minneapolis. It was a joke about a veterinarian, a cat, and a Labrador retriever. I had heard the joke before. I wrote back and told him that I was cheered by the fact that the good guys were winning the war. I also told him that I wasn’t going to fly on airplanes anymore.

My cousin replied that travel by air was safer than driving. Also he said he worried that the guys in the white hats would turn around and become the guys in the black hats.

I wrote back that you have to have faith in something.

That night I went to an AA meeting. The meeting secretary had dark smudges under his eyes; he looked like he hadn’t slept in a week. I asked him what was wrong, and he said that he had been in a car accident that afternoon. The car was a rental. His truck was in the shop because somebody had broken into it and stolen the radio the week before.

The meeting topic was gratitude. The secretary said he wanted talk about that because he was feeling pretty sorry for himself when he walked into the meeting.

A man who had been sober for nearly thirty years said that he was grateful for the things he did not have. He didn’t have a bail bondsman anymore, he said. And he didn’t have to get his financial advice or marriage counseling in bars.

When it was my turn to talk, I said that when we talked about gratitude in an AA meeting, I always thought about the pamphlet titled “Why We Were Chosen.” I don’t know why I was picked to get well, I said, but I was. I guess I just got lucky, I said.

My wife and I get up early in the morning, my wife because she has to go to work. I get up early because that’s when I wake up. I’m an early riser. Thursday morning I was up at five o’clock. I fed the cats, and then I went into the room in our home that we call the office, and turned on the computer. I went online and checked the latest news. There was a story about a plan in the works to destroy the United States. Mullah Omar was quoted as saying that “America will fall to the ground.” This wasn’t about weapons, the Mullah said. The extinction of America will come about if God is willing.

For some reason this story cheered me. I told my wife that I would be very surprised if God were on the side of the Taliban.

Thursday is the day the trucks pick up the garbage in our neighborhood. The sun was still below the foothills to the east of our house when I went outside to get the empty saucers and other containers that we use to feed the stray cats. An Oriental woman carrying two bulging plastic sacks was raiding the recycling bins, picking out the aluminum soda cans, I surmised. As I watched, she went from bin to bin up and down the street. Then she got into her car and drove away. As she left, I noticed the logo on the rear of the car. It was a Mercedes.

Holy Moses, I said to myself. Is this a great country, or what?


a short story by Joan Horrigan
([email]joanhorrigan [at] msn [dot] com[/email])

“Describe the music, Claire” Todd requested simply, as if that were simple to do.

We had just finished dinner at my place and were relaxing in easy chairs in the study, me in my old jeans and faded shirt and Todd neatly dressed in casual attire, when I told him about the new CD I had made for him. Todd was interested in hearing which piece on it I liked best, preferring to focus on a specific song and relish its details, ignoring that I had recorded many songs for him and the fact that I had learned to use my new CD burner.

I was really challenged by that request, but Todd was worth the effort, being a grand old man who had held much authority in the university just a decade before. Todd is my best friend in the world, my mentor and my confidante, for almost thirty-two years now. He is the one of whom I had always made requests. I requested much of Todd by asking those simple questions, like the one now posed to me to describe the music. It was his request but also a question to me–[i]could I do it?[/i] I wonder now if Todd ever felt my questions were a challenge those many years ago–questions, such as, [i]How can I be sure about what is true? How can you know there is a God? What is eternity? What is the point to it all? What am I supposed to do, to learn about the world?[/i] and, of course, that old favorite, [i]What is the meaning of life?[/i] You know, all those simple questions.

Todd never once was put off by my questions and always took them seriously, so I had to do the same for him now, since his hearing is fading and his body is becoming more and more frail. Todd is 87, about my height now, even though he towered over me thirty years ago when I was a student in his class at Cal-State hanging on every word. He would look through those thick glasses below that remarkable high forehead crowned by dark wavy hair and down his pointed nose at me and the other rapt students sitting before him in the classroom as he explained the world and the world of philosophy. His classes were the most popular on campus and always too short, as I would just be forming another question when the bell rang.

Todd, scholarly sedate and tall then, dressed always in that white shirt, blue tie and dark blue suit, seemed to know every esoteric thing about the meaning of life, and I was on a quest to find that out at the time I met him. I was the moth to his flame, but got thoroughly warmed, not burned, as he is a sensitive cultured gentleman of the first degree, not the kind you see on TV or in the movies. He is a warm, real and knowledgeable man with a dedication to teaching and learning, not full of the charm of some guru who would seduce ignorant students. He taught by example and a questing after truth that was clarified by his humble yet astute mentality, shown by finding and asking the [i]critical question[/i]–that question, which if properly phrased might lead nearer the truth.

Now here he was asking a critical question of me, but of a different sort. This time he is asking for my help as he has grown old and weak, and I feel I will fail him for I know nothing about music. I just love to listen to music, to be the audience, not the performer as he is. Todd plays the piano and organ beautifully and gave recitals up until year before last. He is a Bach aficionado, and I learned all I know about Bach from him. [i]Describe the music, Claire[/i] repeated in my head as he sat patiently waiting. So I will not deny him now.

I got up from the easy chair, walked over and placed the CD in the player, picking up the remote. He wanted me to describe the song I liked best so I played the music through once, a six-minute piece, and began my unprepared explanation of the song I had recorded.

“The name of the song is [i]Good Luck, Jack,[/i] I began. “I do not know if it has lyrics or not in some other version; I just love the melancholy flavor of it, played by the Ned Nash orchestra from an old album of western songs, would you believe?” I exclaimed, knowing Todd was a lover of classical music, but this song was a classic to me in its purity of emotional expression, so I continued as he nodded acceptingly.

“I believe it could just as easily be titled, [i]So Long, Jack,[/i] or more accurately, [i]Goodbye, Jack,[/i]” I explained, “because it sounds so plaintive and sad, like saying a final goodbye to a lover whom you know you will never see again.

“Play it again, and then [i]describe the music,[/i]” he pushed in teacherly fashion. He never asked me to describe the music after he played a Bach piece, nor I him. I always just gushed something complimentary when he was done. Then he would explain how Bach did variations on a theme and [i]sometimes[/i] played part of it a second time to show what he meant. That was when we were alone in his home across town where he had a spacious music room set up for recitals and the storage of all his years of sheet music with the full sized organ and a grand piano sitting beneath a large tapered crystal chandelier. Here in my study, all I had were the two blue over-stuffed chairs we were sitting in and plain furniture, an ancient wooden desk, file cabinets, over-full book cases and my little CD player, but I did have good speakers. So I clicked the repeat button on the remote, staying in my chair yet sitting upward a little more for concentration, and started it again.

After the sweet six minutes, I began again. “The music of this western song starts slow, low and softly and opens with a church-like intro tune, an organ playing in the first round of the melody that swells with cellos and violas building to its completion and with the next opening of the melody now played with violins replacing the organ. Then the melody repeats again in a slightly higher tone but adds very lush violas, cellos and lowest bass notes. Clarinets join the next round with the violins adding texture with a single twang of guitar occasionally and even one clear bell chimes in the distance. The higher the strings sing, the lower the cellos moan. Then the whole orchestra incorporates the full extension of highs with lows to an almost piercing poignant wail with heartbreaking violins at its climax as a soft very low bass string is plucked intermittently, sounding like a solitary soft drum beat in the distance, heard off and on irregularly throughout the piece, not as a constant beat, but with extended time to emphasize the utter slowness of the song as if to drag out the sad goodbye of the tune until the very last moment. The plucking bass begins to sound like rain landing as droplets. No, it sounds more like tears now that I hear it again. The final note lasts longer than any I’ve heard, and still it lingers like it is hanging in the large blue western sky above the plains,” I described, feeling my lack of ability to be technically specific and inadequacy to turn sound into descriptive words.

He waved me to continue, saying nothing.

“This lovely melody is of a parting with such sweet sorrow, made sweet by the music itself, but filled only with sorrow and a deep foreboding and profound longing. The forlorn melody sounds like internal crying feels in its melodic emotional swelling like dark night ocean waves overlapping each other,” I attempted to explain more pedantically to Todd.

“Now I see the title is ironic,” I continued, really getting into my explanation of the music. “The title should not be changed because that also increases its poignancy as if this parting need not be but is occurring nevertheless. It is a beautiful rendition of some girl’s breaking heart, probably standing and watching her cowboy ride off into the sunset while struggling to keep a straight face as tears stream down it. Standing in her faded cotton dress beyond the porch of her little wood frame house out on the open range under that graying western sky, she sees her cowboy waving his final goodbye instead of kissing her goodbye. She does not say [i]goodbye[/i] nor what she really wants to say, [i]don’t go.[/i] She says [i]Good Luck, Jack,[/i] hiding her true feelings that the lush music unmasks,” I concluded to Todd.

“Play it again,” he said, and I did.

He sat with closed eyes listening with me, both of us silent now, to the third playing of the haunting piece that mesmerized us both as we sat comfortably yet alert to the sound of strings mourning throughout the layers of the melody while the intermittent bass dropped slow tears.

Then the silence set in when the music ended.

Todd stirred in the big overstuffed blue chair, looking thinner than I had ever seen him. Always neatly dressed, his pale yellow shirt and tan pants seemed way too big for him. His face was calm and his rounded head showed through the thin gray hair. That familiar face with those thick glasses now was crowded with wrinkles, but his eyes beneath the lined lids were still the same.

“I know the song played out the feelings of the cowboy also,” mused Todd simply, “because he is not supposed to cry, but that beautiful piece allows him to,” and I then I realized he was touched as much as I by the mournful tune.

Silence again.

“Someday, Claire,” he stated slowly and softly, “that will be our song.”

His words struck me far more than any I had heard before from him. After all the years of our conversations on every topic we could explore, after all those years of listening to his Bach tunes, I heard that western music play again in my head and, like the girl in the song, kept a straight face feeling the tears coming. We both knew what he meant, but what could I say? It was just a simple question, a question for myself. This was the one that had no answer.


Up, down, sideways. My emotions are all over the place after the terrorist attack. First I’m angry, then depressed, then angry again — this time at something else. One day I’m mad at the terrorists, the next at the FAA, then at our foreign policy, and finally at myself for second-guessing.

Is patriotism the last refuge of scoundrels? Or is it hindsight?

My friend Leonard and I argue each morning on our daily walks. “Nuke ’em,” Leonard says. “No more land wars in countries where we don’t belong.” Leonard, a Vietnam vet, is suspicious of government policy.

I share his skepticism about our leadership until I read an article I find on the Internet about the major players in our state department and their preparations for a response to the attack.

They seem to know what they are doing, I tell Leonard, and I sketch out an outline of what I have read. Leonard is unimpressed. The article comforts me, though. It’s nice to know we have a plan.

I ask my wife what she thinks of all this, and she replies that she is in denial.

I tell my wife to go shopping. “Shop ’til you drop,” I say. “It’s patriotic.” She goes shopping for things we need. Groceries. I tell her to look for flags, and she does, but she can’t find any.

We borrow a flag from a neighbor. It’s sitting on top of the TV in the den. We haven’t figured out where to display it yet. One of our neighbors has spray-painted God Bless America in red, white, and blue on his garage door. The other neighbors are abuzz because very faintly you can see other words underneath. “Go Home” something. The first two words are all you can read.

Of course the psychiatrists and counselors are thick as flies on the talk shows, talking about what we can do with our anger, but I think instead we should be talking about what we can do.

What can we do? I send money to the Red Cross and other relief agencies, and vow not to join the mental masturbators who are critical of our country’s past policy mistakes. What’s done is done. After that, I draw a blank. What else can I do? Remember, maybe. Remember what it was like during the cold war. Remember what it was like after Pearl Harbor. The Cold War lasted for forty-five years. After Pearl Harbor, it was a year and a half before there was any good news. Day after day we heard on the radio and read in the newspaper how the U.S. was getting its ass kicked. It wasn’t until the battle of Midway that we had anything to cheer about.

Meanwhile, my wife and I get tipsy, figuratively speaking. We grow giddy. We talk about mobilizing the cats in the new war on terrorism. I go outside one morning, and the raccoons have torn up the grass in our front lawn. I claim it was the work of terrorists. We begin assigning each of our animals a job. Simba, an antisocial Maine Coon who lives in our garage at night and roams the property outside by day, is given the title of Minister of Homeland Security. Frank, our smartest cat, is named the new Director of the CIA. (I figure that replacing the old one is no great loss.) Mouse and Turtle, who spend hours on our back porch watching the birds, are made air raid wardens. Pee Wee is put in charge of rounding up terrorist flies and moths. Pee Wee, an adolescent gray tabby, relishes his job. He eats what he catches. Barbaric? Yes, but fight fire with fire.

Spot wants to join Simba in securing the perimeter of our property, but he proves to be unqualified. A muscular tom with the mottled black and white coloring of a Holstein cow, Spot tangles with a stray, a red tabby, whom because of the red hair Spot mistakes for a member of the IRA, and Spot gets his clock cleaned. I tell Spot that he has no sense of history. “Don’t fight old battles,” I say. Spot crawls up into my lap, and when I stroke his head, he purrs.

All of our cats, all nine of them, seem to be needy these days. Spot had never been a lap cat before. And now, when one of them flops on the carpet, begging for attention, two or three more will appear out of nowhere, circling close as we kneel down to administer pats and scratches.

Or perhaps it isn’t the cats’ need but an instinctive recognition of our need that explains the change in behavior. Something is wrong in their world, and they are dealing with it the best way that they can, by radiating a kind of fuzzy love.


We finally figured out what to do with my wife’s father. We locked him up. “Shoulda done it years ago,” was Kermit’s opinion, expressed at a family meeting called to decide the old boy’s fate. Really, there was nothing else to do. His wife, no spring chicken herself, couldn’t deal with him anymore. Who else was going to take him in? His brothers and sisters were either dead or as crazy as he was, Kermit, the youngest, being the exception. But Kermit, a bachelor, wasn’t caretaker material. Kermit and Earl didn’t get along anyway. “Never did, never will, “Kermit said. I once asked Kermit why he didn’t like his brother. “Because He’s a jackass,” Kermit replied.

Earl’s children couldn’t take him in either. My wife Kat worked, and Billy and Dot had kids. “Keeping track of somebody with Alzheimers is a full-time job,” Kat said. Kat wouldn’t have volunteered even if she weren’t working. Her relationship with her father was only slightly more cordial than Earl and Kermit’s.

After the powwow, I asked Kat if we knew for sure that Earl had Alzheimers. “What do you call it,” Kat said, “when somebody tries to call his old school friend, who’s been dead for twenty years, to tell him He’s in Colorado, and He’s coming to see him? And he’s right here in California when he picks up the phone.”

Earl was bonkers; there was no doubt about that. And Edith, his wife, was a nervous wreck. So we put Earl in a home. “The Lodge,” Billy called it, hoping it would make Earl feel better about the move.

Earl didn’t want to go, of course, but he went peacefully enough when the big day came. At first he was pretty confused, but after a week or so he settled down. The home was nice, as such places go, not luxurious but pleasant, and the staff was cheery and seemingly competent. To his delight, Earl found that his musical talents were greatly appreciated at the evening entertainments. Earl sang in a reedy tenor and accompanied himself on the ukulele. He knew dozens of old songs. He might not know what day it was or whether he was in California or North Dakota, but he knew every word to “The Sheik of Araby” and “Oh, Susanna.”

One Sunday, several months after we parked Earl in the home, Kat popped in for a visit. When she got home, she headed straight for the kitchen and poured herself a glass of wine. I found her in a sling chair on the back deck, her feet propped up on a canvas foot rest.

“That place is a zoo!” Kat said. Kat said that when she got there, she found Earl wandering around the hall outside his room. He couldn’t get in, he said. The door was locked. Kat tried the door, and sure enough, it was locked. She fetched the charge nurse who unlocked the door. When they got inside, they found some other old timer in Earl’s bed. The nurse rousted him, and he wasn’t happy about it. “He don’t use it anyway,” the old boy groused as he was led away.

Kat said that Edith told her that the previous week she had spotted one of the other patients, a woman, walking down the hall with Earl’s laundry bag. Edith knew it was Earl’s because it had a pattern of flowers at the top that she had sewed on herself. Edith marched up to the woman and took the bag away from her. She surprised herself, she said, but it made her mad. “That’s my husband’s laundry bag!” she said. When she opened the bag, she found Earl’s soiled socks and shorts, but there were some of the lady’s things in there, too. “Can you believe it?” Edith asked.

Of course I doubt that Edith drew the same conclusion from the laundry bag story that we did. Edith is a nice lady, but she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. I asked Kat if Edith knew about the “Colorado Connection.” Kat said that she had to; they all grew up together. Earl had been married four times. He met his first wife, Kat’s mother, in San Francisco. Lydia and Daisy were from Colorado. Edith wasn’t from Colorado, but her husband was. Like Lydia and Daisy, he was one of Earl’s high school classmates.

The story of Earl’s Rocky Mountain brides was a family joke. Billy referred to Earl’s periodic trips home for his high school reunions as “fishing trips.”

Earl was fifty when Kat’s mother died. He hooked up with Lydia, his second wife, in 1985, ten years later. Some years after that, Lydia left him, taking the furniture with her. Earl was in Scotland at the time. Lydia was supposed to go on the trip, too, but at the last minute, she backed out. Earl returned to an empty house.

Earl moped for a while, but the following summer, he was back in action. Once again he traveled to Colorado for his class reunion, and this time he struck gold.

Earl’s courtship of Daisy was storybook material. They had been high school sweethearts. After graduating, they put their wedding plans on hold, and Earl went off to college. There wasn’t enough money for both to go, so Daisy stayed home. That’s the last she heard from Earl.

“He took the money and ran,” was Kermit’s sour comment.

I don’t know what lame story he told her fifty years later, but apparently Daisy bought it. They got married, and Earl packed up and moved to Texas where Daisy had a home. Daisy had married a Texas oilman. The oilman had died the previous year. He was struck by lightning while fishing for bass on Lake Arrowhead. Once again, Earl’s luck turned sour. Daisy got sick a year later, and the doctors found a tumor in her gall bladder. A few months later she was dead. Earl didn’t get her money this time, however. Not a nickel. She left it to her kids.

A short time later, Earl left Texas and headed back to California. On the way, he stopped to see his old friends Al and Edith in Arizona. He called us from Sun City. Al wasn’t doing too well, Earl said. He had cancer, and the docs had given him only a few months to live. Earl said he was going to stay a few days longer than he had planned.

Kat hung up the phone and reported the conversation. “You don’t suppose …?” I said. Kat said she didn’t want to talk about it.

This year it was our turn to host the family get-together on Father’s Day. Kat cooked dinner, and Dot picked up Earl at the home on her way over from the coast. When the doorbell rang, I went to the door, and there was Earl, looking fit as a fiddle. Earl is a big, pear-shaped man, bald as a teapot. He is moonfaced and rosy, a cherub with wattles. Earl had dressed up for the occasion. He was sporting a bow tie to go with his fresh white shirt and crisp flannels.

“Come in, come in!” I said.

Earl shook my hand. “Happy birthday,” he said.

Without much difficulty, Kat and Dot persuaded Earl to lead a sing-along after dinner. Earl had his trusty ukulele with him, of course.

I joined Kermit and Billy on the landing between our living room and the family room where the entertainment was taking place.

“What’s the matter?” I said to Kermit. “Aren’t you a music lover?

We watched and listened for a while, and finally Kermit said to me, “I don’t know. Maybe I’m too hard on the old boy. All he ever wanted was somebody to wash his clothes and darn his socks.”

Earl picked away at his uke and sang tune after tune for his appreciative audience in a voice that was once, I’m told, a rich tenor, now grown rusty with age. He was having a wonderful time.

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