Three months had passed since Will last visited his father in the Arboretum. This time, he flew down without his wife and son on a last minute ticket after the call from the director informing him that his father had punched a ninety-one-year-old resident, Mrs. Brenda Thatcher, in the face. Not that Will knew what he could do about it. He was dreading the trip, unsure how to help, but here he was now, the smell of antiseptic striking him as soon as he stepped into Overlook Assisted Living.
He knew that as soon as he entered his father’s room in the memory care wing, he would see him sitting in the recliner facing the door, set in the exact center, watching the TV that would be on too loud; he knew his legs would be splayed apart on the chair’s footrest raised to its maximum height, and that the same old moccasins would be propped barely around his bandaged feet. He knew the curtain would be drawn, the blinds closed, and he was ready for the sour stench made worse by the heat his father insisted on keeping at 85 degrees despite the southern sun. But what he didn’t know, what he didn’t expect was how his father would look. So remarkably different from the last time Will saw him. His father now sat in his chair looking like something overgrown.
His fine silver hair nearly brushed the tops of his shoulders, and his face was covered in what looked like ash from the stubble over his cheeks and chin. He looked like he was part of the room, something growing right up from the carpet or the cushions of that chair.
“Shut the damn door, you’re letting in a draft,” his father shouted. His familiar voice coming from this stranger. This man who’d punched an old lady. How was that possible?
“It’s me, Dad, how you doing?” Will leaned down to kiss him on the cheek.
Without the glasses, his father looked naked, but there was a flicker of recognition, Will saw it. Yes, of course, he still knew his son. He murmured again about the draft, settled back to the TV.
It was something he’d never felt before—the stubble on his father’s face.
“I need my log book. I can’t find my log book. Can you look?”
Will sat on the bed covered with the same red plaid blanket his father had always used and unbuttoned the top of his shirt, rolled up his sleeves. “Sure, Dad.” The single curtain hung swollen with moisture and heat. “You have breakfast?”
Breakfast, it was always breakfast with them. But by 8a.m., the dining room was already being cleared. Only one woman remained at the community table in her thin robe, head hung over a sippy cup—the kind his own kid liked to drink from. He couldn’t help wonder if it was Brenda Thatcher, the ninety-one year old who wandered into the wrong room and met his father’s fist. Whose fault was it anyway?
“You want some coffee?” Will asked.
His father had shut his eyes. The TV played a barrage of images from an entertainment news station—famous people neither of them had any idea of—overlapping with the announcer’s frenetic voice. Will found the remote hanging from the cord on his father’s recliner and lowered the volume.
A handwritten list that Bethany made when they first visited was taped to the wall beside a small flower pot with dried out dirt. It read: Will= your son; Bethany=Will’s wife (your daughter-in-law); Max= your grandson (2 yrs old). It was an idea Bethany had read about when googling how to care for parents with Alzheimer’s. Both her parents were alive and well on the west coast.
Will worked as a financial consultant at Prudential in Chicago. It was a second career for him having moved over in the company from marketing. He never considered getting into finance until there was an opening in the company at the same time his first marriage was ending in divorce, and it was one of the many ways in which Will had tried to redefine himself.
He thought about Linda sometimes, he did. But with nothing more than a curious detachment towards himself, at the man who spent five years with a person he barely knew, a woman so opposite from Bethany. Everything was new with Bethany–the suburban house, the pregnancy, becoming a father. Work was busy, but here now, it felt insignificant—the meetings, the clients, tasks spread across his desk—like pieces to a dollhouse. His father coughed loudly and looked up as though surprised to see Will.
“Where you at now?”
Will wanted to ask his father why the hell he looked like a wolf, why they’d stopped grooming him, why they’d apparently left him here to rot. “Chicago, Dad. I’m still in Chicago.”
“Look,” Will removed from his pocket a photograph Bethany had given him before the trip. “Here’s your grandson. Max.” It was of his kid at his recent birthday, eating a piece of cake and looking adorable in his paper hat. “He just turned four.”
The last time they came to visit, Will remembered Max playing, pulling apart the single set of blinds behind the bed and making his Hot Wheels car nose dive along the vinyl panels.
“Go on, put it there with the others.”
Covering the lampshade were various photographs his father had kept taped since living in his condo before moving into Overlook Terrace. Will turned the shade and found a space beside a picture of his parents posing with Goofy at Disney World. He remembered taking that picture. It was shortly before his mother died.
When the cancer returned, Will’s parents left Chicago and moved to Orlando so his mother could live near Disney World like she’d always wanted. A place she loved more than anything with all its magic and promise of happiness. A place where nothing changed, where they could keep safe from the effects of time. His mother was sure it was all she needed to get better, though the doctors suggested otherwise.
“Disney World?” Will said when they announced their plans. “Are you serious? What about your doctors? Do they have hospitals? I mean real ones?”
“You don’t remember, but we took you there when you were a child. All these years how we never went back,” his mother said as though mourning a lost friend.
It was not a discussion. His parents had already flown south in their minds the moment the doctor shut the frosted glass door to his office meant for private conferences.
Their new condo was filled with everything Disney. Miniature glass figurines lined the shelves in their kitchen and the mantel in their living room. Blank postcards covered the front of their fridge. His mother’s short curls dyed the perfect cherry red, a black and white bow fastened to it like Minnie Mouse. Her make-up held bright against her pale skin like desperation. The neediness of their hope pronounced against the cheer of their new environment. Signs tacked to their walls: ‘Never Stop Dreaming’, ‘Smile! Life Is a Bowl of Sugar’. Everything in the condo demanded happiness.
His father was all Bermudas and linen shirts. He had softened, lost some of the hard edge that kept him distant. “We love it here,” he proclaimed when Will visited, as though he’d forgotten the doctor’s discussion, as though they were planning a long sunny retirement. “Happiness Is As Good As Bacon” hung crooked behind his smiling face.
The three of them strolled down the promenade, across the grounds, and Will felt his parents’ hopes of becoming part of the set. If they stayed here long enough, they would be protected, unaffected by the brutality of life un-staged. The real world with all its illness and aging and death would be kept at bay.
In the photograph, his mother and father stood on either side of Goofy, his oversized white gloves wrapped around their shoulders like a proud cartoon dad. His mother looked small and frail, a slight grimace beneath her smile. One of her cheeks was stained with a bright circle of rouge while the other cheek looked pale, as though by the time she’d gotten to the second side, she’d grown tired and unconcerned. His parents smiling like children, like they’d won a prize, like they truly believed the enormous dog in his tall rumpled hat and turtleneck was real.
Will fastened the picture of Max beside it on the lampshade.
His father was asleep again. Will slowly stalked around the recliner. His father was barely recognizable. His father, who served as a military policeman during the Korean war, who used to tuck his sheets without a crease, and at one time mounted hand-soap dispensers in every room of his condominium so the countertops would always be clear (those awful soap bars, who ever invented such a ridiculous mess), who spent the rest of his life working as a hairdresser in the mall’s J.C. Penny salon where he eventually became manager, who taught his own son about geometrical precision, the importance of a clean bathroom, clipped nose hairs, and neatly trimmed hair, now sat like an overgrown weed.
His propped up feet were swollen and the bandages covering them were wet. Then Will noticed a small puddle soaking into the stained carpet beneath the recliner. Some fluid was dripping out the back of his father’s moccasins which barely fit over the bandages.
“Jesus,” Will grabbed the remote and turned the TV to mute. “Dad, what the hell is going on here?”
He had to do something. He’d find the director. Then he’d find the old woman.
Never in Will’s life had he seen his father unkempt. Will could remember being a child, entering first grade, and trying to lay out his clothes the same way his father did each morning with such trained military precision, though Will could never seem to get it just right. Once, spying through the hinge of his parent’s bedroom door, he watched his father standing planted behind the ironing board, explaining to Will’s mother with fierce seriousness the proper way to iron, though she looked to be barely listening. She sat at the dresser curling her hair in the mirror, while his father’s enormous hand pawed the iron’s handle, releasing puffs of steam onto the shirt pinned beneath it. His free hand worked to spread and shift the shirt’s collar. It appeared as though he were doing something as intricate and involved as surgery and Will wondered at the strangeness of someone so big and strong making something look so delicate. It seemed another man existed inside the one he knew as his father, a stranger who was even more of a mystery. Even in his undershirt, standing there behind the iron, his father had command, every hair in place, each wrinkle quietly extinguished before it even had a chance.
Just then the door to his father’s room opened and a heavy-set nurse with tightly pulled back black hair and large hoop earrings entered the room. “Hello, there,” she said loudly.
His father was visibly startled. “Get the hell outta here, will you?”
Will quickly reached for his father’s shoulder. “Dad.”
“You’ve got to take these here,” the nurse said in a lilting accent. She held out a small paper cup of pills.
Just as she handed it over, his father swatted at the space, hitting the cup out of her hand causing the pills to go flying across the rug. “These people, they’re trying to poison me that’s all, that’s what they do!” his father shouted, still swatting the air.
“Dad!” Will scolded, stunned, his heart racing. He bent down to gather the pills and the nurse held up both her hands in surrender. “I tell him, Mr. Leonard, I am your nurse, nobody going to hurt you.”
“Sorry,” Will said. “I’m sorry—I don’t know, I’ve got it, I’ll get them,” Will said on his hands and knees. The nurse made a tsk’ing sound and left the room shaking her head.
Will set the cup of pills on the desk. “What the hell, Dad?” He stretched his back. “Why are you shouting at her? Nobody’s trying to kill you.”
But his father just turned stone-faced, a slight quiver in the sagging skin beneath his chin.
Will exhaled deeply. “It’s ok, it’s fine,” he said, nodding. “It’s fine.” Though he wasn’t sure which of them he was comforting. The two of them stayed in the silence, letting the space settle around them. “It’s fine.”
It looked like everything in his father begged to curl forward. Will pictured Brenda Thatcher wandering into the room, maybe reaching for something on the desk or opening the wardrobe. He wasn’t sure how much his father remembered of the incident. Will would’ve socked her, too, he thought. And then he had an overwhelming urge to tell his father that he would’ve done the same, that the old lady was asking for it coming in here like she did. That he was on his father’s side. As a matter of fact maybe he’d just go and find her now and have a word, let her know it takes two to make a wrong, that nobody wants to go to the B Wing so why don’t we all just play by the rules here and stay out of each other’s rooms. Maybe that’s just what he should do. After all, he’d come here to help.
The B wing. Just the name of it alarmed him. No way was he going to let them move his father to the B wing. It had nothing to do with cost. His father had bonds and a nice pension from JC Penny, which was enough to cover the facility. But the B wing was the last stop, and his father was never one for failure.
Just then a sweet high-pitched voice sang out from the doorway, “Mr. Leonard, darling!” A smaller woman with a bright pink nursing shirt stepped into the room. She looked like she could have been the first nurse’s younger sister.
“Hiya, sweetheart,” his father said, suddenly livened.
“You givin’ my friend, Ruby, a hard time I hear?”
Her nametag said Serena and she said hello to Will.
“I’m sorry,” Will said, “He got upset—I don’t know why.”
“I was waiting for you, sweetheart,” his father said loudly. “You’re the only one I know isn’t trying to kill me here.”
“We all together, Mr. Leonard, nobody want to hurt you.”
“I need my log book,” he said. “I can’t find it.”
“You want a book?” Serena answered sweetly.
“My log book.”
“It’s ok, Dad.”
“They’ve got a collection in the common room. Where the dollhouse’s at,” she said to Will.
“It’s just something he used to track his finances in—a notebook.”
“You don’t need no money here. Everything free, Mr. Leonard.”
“What’d she say?” his father said.
The girl laughed. “No money here, Mr. Leonard, it all free free free.” She held up her open palms.
“No such thing,” his father said. “Nothing’s free. That’s what they’re telling you maybe.” The young nurse smiled, showing her perfect white teeth. She was a pretty girl, at most twenty, but with an older spirit.
“You spilt your pills, my friend tells me, that true?”
“I’ve got them,” Will showed her the cup and she checked inside, then marked something down on a chart.
“Ok, then. Be sure he takes those.”
“Have a nice day,” she said to Will and then she said again louder, “Have a nice day, Mr. Leonard.”
Will wanted to tell her there was nothing wrong with his father’s hearing.
A pair of reading glasses lay on the desk, the screw having come out from one of the ear pieces. His father didn’t read anymore. Will slid them inside the desk. In the top drawer, he glimpsed the familiar enveloped labeled Disney World: Instructions printed in his father’s capital lettering. The same envelope had been there for the past ten years since Will’s mother died. It contained a handwritten letter on a piece of graph paper with detailed instructions regarding his father’s final wish: for his ashes to be spread throughout Disney World in all the same places Will’s mother’s ashes had been scattered—a little on the Carousel, the double-seater, your mother and I rode that often; at the Polynesian; during the big parade, she loved that parade–all those dancing girls; in the lake connecting the resort to the Magic Kingdom; we rode that boat—your mother and I—to watch the sunset, take your wife there, if you have one by then…
How many times his father had gone over that letter with Will. He wondered if his father remembered now. So many years of promises.
Later, when the doctor explained the new medication he said it was temporary, to curtail unexpected behavior, or danger to others. It sounded like he was talking about a wild animal. The bandages would be changed twice a week by the staff and he would check them weekly. It was the most they could do. Unless Will hired transport to bring his father to an outside wound clinic. “However,” the doctor explained, “Given your father’s state, I wouldn’t recommend unnecessary upheaval as it may provoke further agitation, and our goal is to reduce disturbances.” It bothered Will how the doctor talked. His father was not an animal.
His father was the one in command. The one to make decisions. Keep things in line. Growing up, each day of the week had its own assignment according to his father. Saturdays were lawn day. Wednesdays were TV dinners. Fridays meant haircuts. Every Friday, Will’s father would cut the family’s hair. Will’s mother, Will, and even his father’s sister, Aunt Gussie, would come over from her house down the street to line up at the washer basin his father had installed in their basement. The first time he saw his mother lean back into the sink, he thought her head fell off and he screamed causing his father to drop the hose and curse so loud at the mess that Aunt Gussie just quietly slipped out of the house. Will refused for years to drop his head back into that sink and his father had to use the spray bottle instead. But still, the menthol bite of shampoo from those oversized jugs, and the chill of the water, and his father’s rough hands scrubbing with their singular purpose, made him every time, even as a teenager, try to duck and squirm away. Will hated Fridays. Swore at his father’s haircuts only once he was well beyond hearing distance from the house, swore to his friends that he went to the regular barber in town like everyone else, though they teased him that only a “Mr. Leonard Cut” could be so precise, so military. Only once did Will accuse his father of cutting like a blind man, “you’re making me bald,” Will shouted, but the following Friday, he was in the chair again like nothing had happened, his father silently slapping the shampoo, spraying the freezing water. His mother insisting on various shades of dye each time in her quest to find the perfect red. Gussie fussing about her curls. His father tending with barely a word as though he was not even really there.
“It’s the damndest thing,” his father spoke now, startling Will. “They’ve got some kind of new system here.”
Will shook the pills in the paper cup. “Dad, you should take these.”
“I can’t figure it out. They have that over by you, too?”
Will wavered between impatience and some other feeling having to do with compassion.
“Wherever you’re at. You know. Whatever the hell they call it…” his father waved his arm towards the windows.
Will yanked the small refrigerator’s plug from the socket to stop the annoying buzzing. The same unopened carton of milk from three months ago sat inside. Last visit, his father had been puzzling over the lack of a refrigerator. “What if the kid wants a glass of milk?” He was talking about Max. “You want some milk?” Max shook his head, drove his hot wheels along the blinds.
“They have whatever you want,” Will said. “Right outside your door.”
“I’m just saying. Sometimes one wants a glass of milk.”
And then Bethany was driving Will to Wal-Mart, and arguing his father’s point with surprising tears, despite Will claiming it was unnecessary, there was really no reason for a fridge.
He wrapped the cord around the top. He would remove it today.
“What, Dad, windows? You’re pointing at the window.”
“Nah, you know, ah forget it.”
Will resisted the urge to raise the TV volume, distract him back into the comfortable distance from the things he once knew.
“I’m talking about, you know, they say it’s nine o’clock. Nine o’clock, right, and then it’s nine o’clock again. They got two of them.”
Will reached for the remote. “It’s just the clock, Dad.” He wasn’t in the mood. It was enough seeing his father like this, how the staff had left him practically to rot, long hair, beard, it was outrageous. It didn’t just happen. You didn’t just see this sometimes. This was his father.
“Yeah, oh whatever. I don’t know what the hell.” His father’s expression glazed over again. The tips of his fingers folded gently on his lap, and he tapped the pads of his thumbs together—a habit Will knew well.
Will knew even if he could go back in time, reverse the unfolding of events, none of it would have happened any differently. When Will mentioned, at the encouragement of Bethany, her idea of his father moving to Chicago to live with them, his father still would have shouted at Will to get the hell out of here, and what the hell did he think he was gonna do, move across the goddamn country? Sit in his grown son’s house like an old fart? Leave the only place your mother was ever happy? You know what happens to an old tree when you uproot it? It dies, that’s right, that’s your big idea? Kill your old man before the universe has its chance? And he still would have resisted the idea of moving out of his condo altogether had it not been for the neighbor calling the fire department before his father knew what happened. And it still would have been the stove, or something else to ultimately agree on a home. And by the time they finally decided on Overlook Terrace, his father still would not quite have understood; And on the direction of the facility for Will not to visit for the first thirty days so as not to further disorient his father while he adjusted to his new environment, Will still would not have believed the policy until Bethany showed him research to support their request. And the sulking back from it all to let time pass would still be as conflicting, still filled with anger and depression and confusion as to what in the world was the right thing to do when nothing made sense. Yes, no matter what, no matter how many times he imagined going back and replaying the events another way, he knew everything would be as it was now. Even so, Will had an urge to apologize. An urge to dust off his father’s mind and give all the sharp edges of memory back to him. As though he were responsible for the way life unfolded, as though it somehow marked a failure on his part as his son.
His father coughed, working himself up in a fit.
“Here, Dad.” He handed his father the paper cup of pills and a second one of water. “Just take them.” His father took the cup without protest. Swallowed hard. Coughed again.
“Huh? Yeah, fine, why, what the hell they telling you?”
“Nothing. They’re not telling me anything. Nothing.”
“I was just talking to Uncle Sonny, that’s all, that’s why. This nine o’clock thing they tell you and then again it comes around. That’s all, that’s why I’m asking you.”
Uncle Sonny had been dead for fifteen years.
Will thought of Max and his inability to grasp time. How many minutes is five? How much time is that? When is nine o’clock? It was like water, slid right through your grip, even if you thought you were smart enough to catch it.
“Day and night, Dad. That’s what you’re talking about. Daytime and nighttime.”
“That’s it,” his father looked directly at Will. “They got that by you?”
“What I’m talking about,” his father’s voice hovered between frustration and breakthrough, grasping at shadows, slippery and impossible.
Will raised the volume again. “Yeah, we’ve got it,” he said, standing up. He pulled open the curtain. “They have it everywhere. It’s just how it is.”
“Yeah?” his father said, a slackness relaxing over his mouth, his eyes widened, just like Will’s boy, how easy it was to amaze.
The sun pierced through the glass, falling in a thick stripe across the recliner and the dank carpet, illuminating his father’s sweater and pant leg. It was a first floor window and looked out into the mostly empty parking lot. The only set of blinds covered the other window behind the bed.
“Maybe if you aired it out in here? Why is it always a hundred degrees in this room?” Will said checking the thermostat on the wall. “You’re going to suffocate.”
Will could see his father was no longer considering time, but resigning after a touch point success, letting the commercials wash over him, soothing him back into the place he went, washed over by sounds and colors and lights and nothingness.
Will took the old flowerpot, dropped it in the trash. Said he’d be right back, but his father had shut his eyes.
When Will left for college he grew his hair to his shoulders, and though he still came home most weekends, Fridays were no longer family haircutting day. His mother and Aunt Gussie would go to the J.C. Penny salon where his father worked instead, make an outing of it. When Will came home, they’d eat dinner together at the table where his father would read the paper, every so often glancing up in need of another ice cube for his watered down pink wine or a second serving of potatoes. “You can’t put that thing down, what’s new, really?” his mother would say. “Your son’s home, can’t you ask him about his classes?”
“Huh? My kid? What’d they forget to give him a bathroom to clean up in?”
“Jesus, here we go,” Will said.
Both Will and his father directed their conversation through Will’s mother as though she served as the interpreter between them.
“What kind of place he’s living at up there? Mr. big university, comes home looking like a bum?”
His father thought college was a scam.
“Stop it,” his mother commanded and he picked up his newspaper.
It wasn’t until his mother got sick that Will and his father softened towards one another. Will was done with college by then, in his early thirties, and working in marketing. After his parents moved to Florida, Will saw a gentler man emerge, one he knew even less.
Only once, did Will almost see his father cry. The two of them back home after the funeral, sitting at the kitchen table as though waiting for someone to come bring them each a glass of milk though they knew no one would. His father with the paper like always but this time he set it down and looked up at the clock on the kitchen wall. “The damn thing always tick so loud?” he said with a pained look as though it offended him. Will looked at the round plastic clock hanging behind him. “I guess,” he said and when he turned back around, he thought he saw his father wipe a tear. But then he was cursing a damn fly, swatting at the air, and pushing back from the table with a familiar burst of rage so that Will thought maybe he’d been mistaken.
At the nurses’ station, Will waited for a girl, and when one finally came through with her cart full of pills divided in a spread of small paper cups, he asked her for some scissors.
She didn’t answer but started marking on her chart.
“Excuse me,” he said forcefully.
She glanced up. One of her eyebrows raised. Her eyes paused blankly on his face.
“Grooming scissors, or anything like that?”
She made some indecipherable sound, marked her chart again and pushed the cart past.
A hissing startled him. It was one of the Rounders. He remembered her from last time. She scared Max, walking frenzied laps around the circular floor plan, hissing between her back teeth as if she were trying to expel something. The way some of them feasted their eyes on the boy, moved with trembling hands outstretched as though wanting to feel the young pulse, swoop him up like hawks and feed. With such piercing eyes they came so that Will shuttled Max fast into his father’s room and shut the door—one time having to hold his weight against a resident trying to get in (the numeric pads on each door programmed with the same 1-2-3- codes that did nothing more than click rather than actually lock the door were there for comfort, reminders of home, the supervisor explained). But now, the residents had no interest in Will. The hisser didn’t even glance as she hurried past.
A white-haired woman sat alone in the corner of the common room on a blue couch beside the dollhouse. She kept wrapping and unwrapping a shawl around her narrow shoulders, slipping on and off again her fuzzy slippers. Was that Brenda Thatcher? And if so, she looked just fine. All the trouble his father was in, warnings of the B Wing, new medication, and there she sat, perfectly in tact, an old dandelion. The young nurse, Serena, was walking arm in arm with one of the male residents towards the screened porch which led to the outdoor garden. He wanted to ask her if that was in fact Ms. Thatcher sitting on the couch. Maybe it was the right time to have a word with her, mention her part in the wrong-doing, remind her of the importance of privacy and not entering somebody else’s room. Maybe he’d say it like a warning, keep his father out of any more trouble. Tell her about the B-wing.
But then he spotted the director who saw Will at the same moment and quickly approached. It was too late. Serena and the man were in the garden, walking slowly down the path.
“Hello,” he said returning the director’s cold handshake.
“Mr. Leonard, how nice to see you,” she said in her slow southern drawl.
Will forced a half-smile.
“When did you arrive?”
“Today–this morning–I just got in.”
“I hope you’ll stay for our Sunday celebration. Chili dogs and ice cream and Alan’s playing guitar.” She paused then added, “It’s good of you to come.” Nothing on her moved. Her hair seemed permanently fixed, her blue suit and white blouse perfectly pressed, and her expression remained the same–overarched eyebrows and pinched mouth as though she’d just bitten into a lemon and was trying to fight down the sour.
“How’s your father today?”
It dawned on him that his father’s behavior knocking the cup of pills hadn’t gotten back to her yet. He glanced around for Ruby, the nurse. He would ask her to keep this one between them. Promise her it wouldn’t happen again if she could just not report him today.
“Good,” he answered, nodding hard. He gave a tight smile, feeling his face turning red with fury. His neck burning around his open collar.
Then he asked about the grooming.
“You see this sometimes,” the director responded. He sensed she had given this talk before. “Your father has increased agitation. He will not let anyone come near him, we cannot shave him, trim his hair. That is why. It happens.” Then she lowered her voice, “With regards to the incident, with Mrs. Brenda Thatcher, you know we have to take precautions. Though the family is quite understanding. Seeing that she’s made a full recovery.”
Her smile irritated Will.
When Brenda Thatcher wandered into his father’s room, his father did not see a small hunched ninety-one-year-old woman in her nightdress, but rather a thief breaking into his house in the middle of the night, right there in his living room where he was trying to relax after a long day’s work, and what in the hell right did they have, his father muttered while working every bone and muscle in his body to raise himself from the recliner and sock the robber with enough force to knock her down. Will had never known his father to hit anything or anyone in all his life. With all the shouting his father was doing, calling into the receiver’s dial tone for the police to come, the staff came and calmly took over. Back to your rooms. Take this pill, here’s some water. So that was that. You see this sometimes. It happens.
“Given it is your father’s first offence,” the director had said on the phone last week when she called Will in Chicago, “he is on what we call Level One Watch. But it comes down to an issue of staff, and as you know we don’t have full-time medical professionals in this wing. If the behavior continues, or another—well–incident occurs, we may be discussing the B wing.”
Will shut his office door. He had a meeting scheduled with a client and he messaged his assistant to tell her he’d be late. He knew about the B wing. Overlook Terrace was shaped like an octopus with a central rotunda (where all visitors logged in on a clipboard) which then branched off into multiple long corridors, each leading to a different wing. Many of the wings were independent living. The Arboretum, where his father stayed, was the called A wing, for memory care patients. And then there was the B wing. It was at the opposite end of where the A wing ended and closed off with a metal security door. When they first visited Overlook Terrace, the supervisor didn’t take them into that wing, and Will remembered Bethany squeezing his hand while he used words like “progressive deterioration”, “psychotic breaks” and “a need to tranquilize”.
“I should talk to his doctor,” Will said abruptly. “You won’t—he won’t need to be moved. I’ll call his doctor.”
“The new medication has calmed his nerves,” the director told Will now, “but as I told you, we have recorded it as Level One Watch.”
“We see this sometimes as the disease progresses and we must keep everybody safe,” she had said on the phone, “so there are certain measures, of course, as you might imagine…”
Will was already online booking his flight from his office computer.
“And there are cost issues as well to inform you of–if a resident should be moved to B.”
Will clicked on the first flight leaving that weekend. “I’m sure that won’t be necessary.”
“Like I said,” the director was saying to him now. “We look out for the better good of all our residents.”
Will swallowed a bitter taste in the back of his throat. “I’m sure you do.”
Fifteen minutes later, Will was still waiting at the nurse’s station when the girl finally came back, handed him a small pair of scissors, and moved past, pushing her rattling tray down the carpeted hall.
“Thank you,” he said to no one.
He glanced at the blue couch. The old woman was gone. He hadn’t seen her go. Then light as a ghost, a hand was on his back. He jumped and turned, and it was her, standing there close behind him. She was so small, standing at least a foot shorter than him.
“Paul?” She said, looking up at him with such hopeful anticipation on her ancient face. Her beady eyes were dark holes inside the folds of skin. Her lips were dry with a white film around the corners.
“Is that you?” Her knobby fingers reached up towards Will’s face and then landed on his chest so that both hands were resting just below his shirt collar. They could have been poised for a slow dance. Will froze.
“It is you, Paul?” Her voice barely registering in the space between them, as though there was not enough breath to carry it across the short distance between them.
Will didn’t move. He discerned a slight tremor in her head, her shoulders, her hands at rest against his shirt. He looked for any sign of bruising around her eye, but there was none.
“Ms. Thatcher?” he said quietly.
“Oh, Paul,” she exhaled, “It is you,” and then, as though tired from standing, she laid her puff of dandelion hair against his chest. She stayed like that, her fragile head against him, her hands resting against his shirt. Will’s arms hung leaden by his sides. His breath was shallow. He was afraid to move. He could see the top of her skull through her thinning hair. She smelled faintly like vinegar. The common room was empty aside from a few aids passing through who didn’t seem to notice the two of them standing there, and the hisser rounded her laps.
She looked up at him again, patting him gently. “You’ve come to see me,” she said with such relief that he could feel her surrender, sink her weightlessness against him.
If there were scaffolding inside him, he could feel it collapsing now, the slightest shift of some vital structure losing its balance, making the whole thing inside him tumble and cave. It was her, he just knew it. He just knew it was Brenda Thatcher. And yet what did it really matter? She was barely even here. Nothing more than a feather.
Will cleared his throat. He patted her thin arm lightly. “Yes,” his voice croaked. “Yes, it’s me. I’m here.”
And then just like that she wrapped her shawl tighter around her shoulders and moved away, back towards the blue couch, leaving Will cold and alone in her wake.
When he returned to the room, his father was asleep in the chair, hands folded gently in his lap, the TV flashing disco over his ashen face.
The curtain was still pulled back and the sun seemed offensive now. He walked over and pulled it shut. He knew what he would do. He would make it right. Make this whole thing right somehow.
From the adjoining bathroom inside the small room, Will took two rough hand towels and a plastic comb and brought them to his father’s recliner. He laid one of the hand towels down on the puddle beneath his father’s footrest. He draped the other towel gently over the back of his father’s shoulders. The bones jutting out from beneath his brown sweater like a hanger.
“You know what I don’t like?” his father said suddenly.
It startled Will. His father slid between sleep and wake so seamlessly now. Impossible to know. It took a few moments for Will’s heart to settle.
“What’s that, Dad?” He stood behind the chair. He was glad his father knew it was still him, some memory intact, a root that was thicker than others, that connected him to his only son. His father wouldn’t think him an intruder, even if he entered the room in the middle of a deep sleep, and this, however small was a comfort, some kind of victory.
“Here, sit forward a minute, will you, Dad?” He straightened the rough towel across his father’s shoulders.
“You notice they don’t have any doors on that thing? Shouldn’t they have doors?”
He was talking about the bathroom. Every time it was the same.
“I’m going to sit you up here, in this chair.” Will pressed the recliner’s remote and began to raise it upright.
“I like to lean.”
“I’ll put you back when I’m done.”
His father didn’t say anything. Used to succumbing now. Take this pill, drink this water.
“I’m going to cut your hair, Dad. Just sit still. You can relax.”
His father didn’t answer. But he tilted his head downward, his chin towards his chest, held there like that. He knew what to do. This, after all, was his father’s world. Thirty years in a salon.
Will took a deep breath, he’d never done anything like this before. He combed a few of the thin gray strands at the base of his father’s skull, down over his neck to the top of his shoulders. He took the scissors and made the first snip carefully across the bottom. The hair fell silently onto the towel. He waited a moment to see if his father would move or say something. But he was quiet. Holding perfectly still. Hands folded on his lap.
Will could remember being a boy, sitting in the oversized swirly chair while his father told him to quit his squirming. Will snipped the scissors again across the bottom, bending down to see if he was cutting it evenly. Tried to remember anything his father might’ve taught him about cutting hair, but all he could remember was his father saying you’ve got to sit still.
Will drew the comb gently along the side of his father’s head, above his ear and snipped. Wisps of hair dropped onto the towel and the floor. A light snore now came from his father’s back.
He continued around the other side, behind that ear, lightly. His father sat motionless, expertly. Even in his sleep, he knew what to do.
This was the most he had ever touched his father’s hair, his head, his neck and shoulders. Never before did Will understand the intimacy in putting your hands in someone else’s hair. The fact that his father spent his life doing this was a mystery to him now.
He dusted some loose hairs off the sleeve of his father’s sweater. He was glad his father was asleep. It made it easier somehow. As if he were getting away with something.
Will was done. It wasn’t perfect. But as least it was shorter all around now. He gathered the edges of the towel from his father’s shoulders, careful to cradle the loose hairs, careful not to jar him awake, when his father spoke.
“Now take the top,” he instructed.
It startled Will once again. “Jesus, you’ve got to stop doing that, Dad. I thought you were sleeping.”
Will stood behind him with the balled up towel in his hand like he’d been caught. “I’m done,” he said.
His father didn’t respond, but kept his position perfectly still, waiting.
“Take the top,” his father repeated. “Comb it forward, then lift straight up with your fingers,” he said into his chest. There was command in his father’s voice, clarity that Will hadn’t remembered hearing for some time now. “Lift straight up and cut like that. Real close. Use your two fingers.”
His father sat stone steady. Back in his salon. Training his employees. Teaching them to cut hair. Drawing on some intact pool of memory after all these years.
Will set the balled up towel on the floor. He took the comb and did as his father said. He drew it forward over the top of his head, lifting the hair between his two fingers and snipped across, real close.
“That’s right,” his father said quietly into his chest.
Will’s face warmed again. He dropped the loose hairs from the back of his hand onto the floor. A few landed on his shoes. Again, he brought the comb to the crown of his father’s head, drew it forward, lifted, snipped. The silver strands falling.
“That’s right,” his father said again as Will continued slow and steady, doing exactly as he told him, “that’s right, just like that…that’s right…” his father’s voice low and calm as though soothing a crying baby.