Doc came prepared. He was wearing a parka and a heavy sweater when he got off the airplane. He had two big carry on bags and a huge duffle. Why did you bring all this stuff? I asked him. Doc looked puzzled. I left half of it at home, he said.
The next morning, we got up early and drove up to the property that Jake and I owned in the foothills of the Sierras. Our cabin was on the edge of the forest high above a lake. From the deck, we had a panoramic view oft he lake and the surrounding hills.
I had borrowed Jake’s truck so that I could transport several four by eight foot siding panels to replace the ones on the north end of the cabin that the porcupines had chewed up. Doc asked what porcupines found that was good to eat in wood siding, and I said it was the glue.
We worked all afternoon getting the old siding off and the new panels up. When we finished, it was getting dark. We drove into town and had dinner, and when we came out of the restaurant, it was raining. We got in the truck and headed back to the cabin, and up the grade a few hundred yards the rain had turned to snow. A mile or so out of town, the Highway Patrol had set up a road block. They weren’t letting anybody go through. I stopped and talked to one of the troopers. I told him where the cabin was. We had to go back and shut off the water or the pipes would freeze, I said. The trooper didn’t like it, but he moved one of the saw horses aside so we could pass.
It was snowing hard, but it wasn’t cold, and the snow flakes melted as they hit the surface of the highway. At the roadhouse, five miles north of town, I turned onto a gravel road. At the end of the road, by the lake, I parked the truck. The logging trail that led up the hill past the cabin was a crease in a blanket of snow.
When we got to the cabin, I was muddy and wet. Doc peeled off his rubber boots. He was wearing heavy woolen sox. He was wearing long underwear, too. I could see the hems of the white leggings when he turned up his cuffs to pull up his sox.
Doc built a fire in the Franklin stove while I changed clothes. When I came downstairs, he was making coffee. He pulled a chair up to the fire and put his big feet on the bricks in front of the stove.
I brought a chair over and sat down. I told Doc that there was a bottle of brandy in one of the cupboards in the kitchen. Doc got the bottle and poured some of the brandy into his coffee cup. The brandy smelled like apples and cough syrup.
I went into the kitchen to get the coffee pot. I put the pot on top of the Franklin stove and sat down again. I picked up my coffee cup and held it in front of me with both hands.
It’s cold in here, Doc said.
Fifty degrees, I said. I had looked at the thermometer on the wall by the door when I was in the kitchen.
It’ll warm up, Doc said. This old stove throws a lot of heat.
I shuddered. I hate cold weather, I said.
You have to dress for it, Doc said.
Doc took a sip of his coffee. You look better, Doc said. You’ve got some color in your cheeks. When we got stuck, you were shaking when you got back in the truck.
I should have let you push, I said.
It’s stress, Doc said. You get beat up, and after a while, your body quits. You feel like you don’t have any skin.
Doc wanted to talk. He talked and I listened. I wasn’t listening carefully, though, because after a while, Doc asked me what I was thinking.
I smiled. I was thinking about Mona, I said.
Forget about Mona, Doc said. Put her out of your mind.
No, it’s okay, I said. I told you what she said, that she liked me better when I was drinking. Well, that’s the way I feel, too. I liked her better when I was drinking.
Mona’s a twit, Doc said.
Mona’s Mona, I said.
Let’s talk about something else, Doc said.
What do you want to talk about? I asked.
Tell me about the meetings.
I told Doc what the meetings were like. People sit around and talk, I said, and then everybody stands up, holds hands, and says the Lord’s Prayer.
Is it boring? Doc asked.
Sometimes, I said. Some people don’t know when to shut up.
What about the women? Doc asked. I’ve heard that there are a lot of good looking women in AA.
I told Doc that you got a little bit of everything in AA.
Doc sighed. He didn’t say anything for a while. I didn’t say anything, either. Doc looked as if he had something on his mind. Finally, he spit it out.
I’ve been thinking that maybe I should quit, too, he said.
Drinking? I asked.
Yes, Doc said.
I was surprised. Why would you want to do that? I asked.
I think I’m an alcoholic, Doc said.
I asked Doc what made him think he was an alcoholic, and he said that when he started drinking, he couldn’t stop.
Look, Doc said, we don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to.
I said it was all right, that I didn’t mind. I told Doc that sometimes I thought that talking about not drinking was almost as much fun as drinking.
Doc said he thought he would be a good alcoholic. He smoked cigarettes, he liked coffee, and he didn’t like to do what he was told.
I asked Doc how he knew so much about AA, and he said that half his friends were in some kind of program.
An hour later, Doc was telling war stories. The bottle of brandy, half full to begin with, was nearly empty. Doc was telling about the time that he and Ed had picked up a girl in a bar in Minneapolis. I had heard the story before. I got up and wandered around the room while Doc talked.
Doc had put some books on a table in one corner, and I picked them up and looked at the titles. One was a book about geology, and the other was about the first world war.
I went over to a window and looked out. The snow was coming down every which way, like confetti, as if someone were tearing pieces out of the sky.
So then I asked her to do something else, Doc said, and she said, ‘Oh, no. I’m saving that for my husband.’ She was going to be married in two or three weeks!
Doc laughed and laughed.
I told Doc that I was going to bed. Doc looked at his watch. What time is it getting to be? he asked.
Upstairs in the loft, I lay on my back and watched the shadows cast by the fire on the angled ceiling. I wondered if I would be able to sleep. If not, I would lie there and rest. Before, I had worried about not sleeping. Then I had learned that the way to fight it was to stop fighting.
I shut my eyes and listened to Doc downstairs poking at the fire.
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.
Wanda here. I’m the director of Social Services at the Lutheran Home. I do a little bit of everything around here. I’m the chief cook and bottle washer, so to speak. Mainly I’m in charge of patient welfare. I see to it that the gals get new undies when they need them and that the guys get to the grocery store when they run out of oatmeal or prunes. It’s a good job. Busy, busy. But that’s the way I like it. And George and Ida are good people to work for.
If you have to be in a nursing home, this is a good place to be. Nobody volunteers to get in here, I suppose, but we take good care of the residents. We go the extra mile. The food is good, and we give the seniors lots to do. There’s something going on all the time. Talks, music, Bible study, exercise classes, bingo. Nobody gets a chance to sit around feeling sorry for himself.
Did I see trouble coming when Mack and Archie moved in? No, I didn’t. Mack was okay until Archie showed up. Mack got along with people, and he didn’t complain. It was the two of them together that caused the problem. They egged each other on.
Oh, Mack had an eye for the ladies, so I should have seen that coming, I suppose. But when he started mooning over Rose, it seemed innocent enough.
About the other, I didn’t have a clue.
Mack was popular with the other residents, especially the ladies. He was a tall, lanky fellow with a full head of white hair. “The Silver Fox” was a nickname that one of the women gave him. They didn’t call him that to his face, of course. Archie was tall and bony, all arms and legs. He had kind of a gloomy personality, whereas Mack was more upbeat. Archie got along well with the others, too, once he settled in. Both of them liked to talk, and they were both good listeners.
Mack and Archie hit it off right away. After a few weeks, they were the best of friends. Every day they would have coffee together in the afternoon, and they’d sit for hours in the day room arguing about politics and talking about the old days.
When Rose moved in, and Mack started acting like a love-sick teenager, I thought it would put a crimp in their friendship, but Archie seemed amused by his friend’s behavior. If anybody asked, he’d just shrug and explain that Mack was “twitterpated.”
It’s my fault that the two old boys got in trouble, I suppose. One of the other residents, Otto, came into my office one day. He wanted to have a party, and he wondered if the staff would help him set it up. I asked him what the occasion was, and he said he had won some money. “Oh, yeah?” I said. “How much?” “Two thousand dollars,” Otto said. I whistled. “That’s a lot of money,” I said. Otto nodded. He was all excited. “I won it betting on the horses,” he said. Otto said that Archie had made the bet for him.
When I talked to Archie, he was perfectly honest about it. Yes, he made the bet. He made bets for a lot of the residents, he said. Mack was helping him. Mack collected the money, and Archie called in the bets. A friend of his in Minneapolis made the actual wagers. Or if the race was in another state, he’d call another friend who lived in Reno, and he would buy the tickets at a sports book.
Then it hit me. I had been wondering why the residents had taken such a sudden interest in football! In the past, during football season, three or four of the men might sit in the day room and stare at the TV during the Vikings game, but this year there were fifteen or twenty people in there every Sunday. They were a noisy bunch, too! One day the weekend charge nurse had to go in there and tell them to pipe down.
We all thought it was pretty funny. The staff, that is. All of those old Norwegians and Swedes suddenly becoming football fans!
I asked Archie if they were betting on football, too, and he said yes. Football, basketball, hockey. Whatever anybody wanted to bet on.
Well, I had to tell Ida about it because I knew that if George found out that there was gambling going on in his nursing home, I’d be in trouble–we’d all be in trouble. Ida, George’s wife, is a very sweet lady. When I finished telling Ida the tale, she clapped her hand over her mouth to keep from laughing.
Ida had to tell George, though. I could see her point. If the state got wind of what was going on, they could close the place down. And it would be bad for business if people in town found out. Very bad.
So George had a talk with Archie and Mack, and the upshot of that was that the two old men had to move out. Archie went back to California, and Mack moved into one of the new apartments down by the river.
I had a talk with Mack before he left, and he didn’t seem too upset. “Hey,” he said. “We’re lucky. We’re walking out of here. Most people leave this place in a box.”
I told Mack that it was none of my business, but I was curious how they got started betting in the first place.
It grew out of an idea that Archie had, Mack said. One day Archie said that some of them ought to get together and bet on which one would live the longest. They could all throw some money in the pot and buy a bottle of good booze, and the last one to go would get to drink it.
The idea just took off from there, Mack said. They started talking about how they used to bet on the horses, and on football and basketball games, when they were younger, and one day they said, why not? So they asked around to see if there was any interest, and there was, so Archie made the call to his friends, and they were in business.
Some of the folks around here were pretty down in the mouth when Mack and Archie left. Mack stops by to have coffee with his old friends every once in a while, and he always gets a big welcome.
Yesterday I got a card in the mail from Mack. It was in a fancy envelope, and I knew right away what it was. It was a wedding invitation. Mack and Rose were getting married the week after Christmas. Mack had written in black ink at the bottom of the card, “Honeymoon in Vegas. Tell the boys.”