It’s noon at the assisted living. My father-in-law is splayed on the couch. It’s been months since Gerry remembered how to turn on the television. Instead he sits there staring into space. My husband Michael takes a long hard look. Then in a fake peppy voice, he throws out an invitation.
Heh, Pops! It’s lunchtime! Let’s go out to lunch!
Gerry glances up. His face is blank, the words still computing. So Michael speaks louder as if his father were deaf. I’m hungry! You hungry? Is anybody hungry?
But hearing isn’t the issue. Gerry looks down at his legs as if they were strangers. He has forgotten how to get up from the couch, a simple series of movements we take for granted. I read the panic in his eyes as they dart from his feet to the floor and the floor to his feet. So gently, I bring his long legs to the edge of the sofa. Then I wrap my arm around his shoulders. There you go Dad, I say. Now we’re getting up.
Our outing continues along these lines. Gerry silently asks for help while his son sits there just as helplessly. My father-in-law gazes at the menu before him like it looks vaguely familiar. What do you want to eat, Dad? asks Michael. Once again, Gerry has that deer-in-the-headlights look. What do you want to eat? Michael says again.
I turn to Gerry and hold his hand to make sure he looks at me. Then I run through the list of his favorite foods. Cue him. Grilled cheese today, Dad? How about a tuna sandwich or pastrami?
When the French toast comes, he starts eating with his fingers. Michael by this time is crunched up in a ball in the corner of our booth counting the minutes until our visit ends. He is averting his eyes. I take my utensils and cut Gerry’s food into bite-sized pieces. He quickly grabs his fork and hungrily gobbles down his meal, compliant as a child.
Finally, it’s time to drop Gerry off. Then Michael looks at me and says, I don’t know how you do it. The way you figure him out.
Every week we have the identical talk, and every week my reply is the same. It’s just ESP, I say. I just guess what he wants and sometimes I’m lucky.
Then as sure as the sun sets, the moment we get home Michael heads to bed. His limbs are limp, his shoulders slumped. He takes a long nap, exhausted. And when he finally emerges, the silence will be thick enough to taste. No words will be spoken until the next Saturday, when armed with our jackets and our sweaters, we head to the assisted living once more.
Marlene Olin was born in Brooklyn, raised in Miami, and educated at the University of Michigan. Her short stories have been featured or are forthcoming in publications such as The Massachusetts Review, Arts and Letters, Catapult, and The American Literary Review. She is the winner of the 2015 Rick DeMarinis Short Fiction Award, the 2018 So To Speak Fiction Prize, and a nominee for both the Pushcart and the Best of the Net prizes.
On the porch of the house on Thelma Street, you hold my hand and your wife holds my other. She’s my mom but what matters is that she’s your wife, who will leave you in a year and take me with her.
In this one, soon after, more hands. You wear a suit (your sister’s funeral) and smile helplessly. As does your wife and, in the middle, me. Binding us together for now.
Your father takes me into the dark backyard, points to a star and says, “That’s your aunt Shirley, she’s winking at you. She loved you so much.” This goes on for years. I hear in Gramps’ creaky voice how he misses a woman I don’t remember, the one – you will tell me – that he wishes you had died instead of.
Later, in this one: you and Gramps and me on the sofa. Shoulder to shoulder, some awkward holiday. Secrets pump through us, a closed circuit. I hear him again: “She loved you so much,” and in my head I bend the phrase so that he’s talking to you, Dad, about your wife, and with the same small trick – like turning over a card – I can make him say, “I loved you, too,” but I can’t make you believe it.
Randy Osborne’s writing is listed in the Notables section of Best American Essays for 2015, 2016, and 2018. His work has been published in four print anthologies and nominated three times for the Pushcart Prize, as well as Best of the Net. It has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, Full Grown People, The Lascaux Review, Flyleaf Journal, 3:AM Magazine, Empty Mirror, Fiction Attic, Identity Theory, 3Elements Review, Bodega, SLAB, Lumina Journal, Loose Change, SunStruck, Green Mountains Review, 34th Parallel, Spry Literary Journal, Scene Missing, Thread, and other small magazines, as well as the Chicago Tribune, Atlanta Journal Constitution, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and St. Louis Post-Dispatch. He lives in Atlanta, where he recently finished a book-length collection of essays.
Those aren’t locusts
cascading from the sky
but paper confetti
cut from a hand-clasp
fanning of pretty patterns.
Up there, her silhouette
cast on the cardstock
moon, her wolf ear hood
accepted for gospel
glorying in the rituals
shedding like skin
with gusto, pasting
onto pages under plastic.
It felt like love just
to see it that one time.
Luanne Castle’s Kin Types (Finishing Line Press), a chapbook of poetry and flash nonfiction, was a finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. Her first collection of poetry, Doll God, winner of the 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award, was published by Aldrich Press. Luanne has been a Fellow at the Center for Ideas and Society at the University of California, Riverside. She studied English and Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside (PhD); Western Michigan University (MFA); and Stanford University. Her Pushcart-nominated poetry and prose have appeared in Copper Nickel, TAB, American Journal of Poetry, Verse Daily, Glass: A Journal of Poetry, Lunch Ticket, River Teeth, The Review Review, Broad Street, and other journals. An avid blogger, she can be found at luannecastle.com. She divides her time between California and Arizona, where she shares land with a herd of javelina.