The end, or the beginning? Where to start? It had all been so clear in the beginning; make it, get ahead. Suck up the overtime. Work hard. Such a cliché he’d lived.
Margaret had tried to tell him over the years. In the end, he’d worn her out too. It had taken him twenty-five years to use up what she'd offered without returning any of it. She hadn’t even been angry when she’d left. Just tired.
That, too, was a long time ago.
They’d started out so good together; the same values encompassing a wilderness life, using kerosene for light and wood for heat. Poor, yes, but working on a dream house of logs. God she had frustrated him then, young and spoiled and selfish. They’d had to give up their first home, their first land purchase. A beautiful area which taught them you cannot eat beauty and you didn’t work in the area unless you were married to one of the locals.
* * *
“My parents bought a chunk of property. Eighty acres. They’ll give it to us,” he’d waited expectantly, not surprised to see the look of horror cross her face.
“Live on the same piece of property as your parents?”
“It’s not what you think, really! We’d live on the far side with trees separating us. You have to admit we aren’t getting anywhere here. We never will. There we can have a home instead of just living in an unfinished basement.”
She looked around. It had homey touches, of course, but the plastic over the roof had holes and he knew she was tired of the wet, the mildew, and the mice. Finally, she nodded. “Even if we could manage to build the house, we can’t survive here. And it would be nice to live around people who do more than read romances and knit.”
So they’d moved. He’d felt good. He was getting ahead. Once they sold the river property they would have an income they could save. No more trying to make a living stacking pulpwood in the winter. Margaret could get a better job, maybe as a secretary in some office. They could build a real home.
They’d borrowed his parent’s motor home to live in until they got things together. Finally after miles walking through model homes – log, framed, timbered, they’d decided to stay low key for the time being and bought a used singlewide mobile home. It would soon be paid for and then they could save to build a real home.
* * *
With trembling hands, he picked up the glass of water on the table beside him. He managed to get it to his mouth. Yesterday, Mrs. Cronin, the day nurse, had finally convinced him to hire a companion; someone that would do more than come in, turn him and change his bed. The companion was supposed to arrive today. It would probably be some young twit that would drive him crazy.
No. That was wrong. That was exactly precisely what ‘was’ wrong. He’d spent his whole life getting angry before it was necessary – going close-minded to anything that was new. It was all wrong. Only now, bedridden, did he see what Margaret had spent so many years trying to tell him.
Where was she now, his Margaret? He’d dated, but never re-married. The dates had convinced him that a daily relationship would distract too much from his business pursuits. He’d never been lonely, except for holidays when everyone else was celebrating. Eventually he’d learned to schedule a heavier workload to see him through even that time.
Only now was he lonely - when he knew there could be no cure for it. Only now did he understand Margaret’s ‘your damn calculator won’t keep you warm when you’re old’.
He’d tried to learn to enjoy reading something besides business journals and reports, but settling into a novel had been trained out of him eons ago and he would turn pages, realizing none of it had gotten past his mental search for what he should be doing that was more important. He remembered his irritation; seeing Margaret relaxed in a lawn chair, deeply absorbing a mystery and the sun. He’d wanted to scream at her ‘get up and do’. Instead, he’d just made it impossible for her to concentrate. Doors slammed too hard, a request for something every fifteen minutes. At the time, it had all seemed very valid; blind to the real need that she be as busy as he – help justify his own inability to relax. He could still hear the thunk of her book snapping shut.
“Done already?” He would ask in sudden guilt.
“Oh. Yes. I’m done.” And later it hadn’t been reading she’d been talking about. Maybe it never had.
He’d raged at her when she’d left, broke her things, screamed obscenities. She’d known him so well! He could still hear her quiet voice, no anger, no tears, a monotone that said there was no way to hurt her anymore. The tone still haunted him because that was when he’d realized he’d truly lost her. The words were a reflection of how well she knew him.
“Break one more thing and I will take everything you own along with any future income you make. Leave me to go in peace, leave my stuff alone, and all I’ll ever ask for is twenty thousand from the sale of the house. You decide. I don’t care,” and she’d resumed packing.
He’d settled for the twenty thousand, as she’d known he would, calling her the fool.
When she left, he knew she was gone for good. He hadn’t kidded himself. What he hadn’t realized at the time was that she'd taken home with her. Nothing material, and nothing he ever admitted missing, until now, but it was gone all the same.
Christmas decorations and Thanksgiving turkey were the beginners and ones he’d braced himself for. It was the candles in the evening, quiet music, and flowers on the table, the dishes that were done, beds made – not the work itself but the feel of home, Sunday mornings with coffee and newspaper - those had crept up on him with sudden shock.
A knock on his door set his heart thumping in surprise. There was a young woman standing in the doorway. He spent more time with Margaret now than he ever had when they were married.
“I’m Christy. The nurse said to come up?”
He beckoned her in, knowing his face looked like Scrooge at his worst.
She stooped to pick up the large duffel bag at her feet. “I’m a little new at this so you’ll have to be patient with me. I’m not sure what you like so I brought a bit of everything. Also, if I talk too much just tell me. My mother says a companion is supposed to listen and I can except when I’m nervous, then I babble.” She deposited the bag by his bed, hazel eyes a bit wide. She wasn’t pretty, really. Her face was too round, hair too mousy. Her lips were full, diminishing her eyes and small nose. “So, do you want me to read to you?”
Lord no. Not now anyway. He was too depressed from regretting the past this morning. “Sit and tell me about yourself.”
She sat stiffly on the edge of the chair in view of his bed. “There really isn’t anything to tell. I’m about as boring as they come. I live with my mother, watch a lot of TV. I do like to read. Mother always says I’m a poor dinner companion because I read the labels on the bottles. Am I boring you?”
He smiled. Yes, she was and no, she wasn’t. If the old part of him kicked in - the part that had driven him all his life, then he felt the urge to hurry her...he didn’t have time for the frivolous words, except it wasn’t true anymore. Time was all he did have. Maybe by listening he would learn more of what he missed and it would at least take his mind off the miserable thoughts he’d been having. “No. Go on,”
“Go on with what, is the problem,” Christy scooted back in the chair a bit, wiggling her behind to get more comfortable. “There isn’t anything. For real excitement, Mom and I go out to dinner.”
“Where did you work before?” If Margaret were here, she would have known all the right questions to ask to draw Christy out.
“I worked for a little old lady who was in a wheelchair. Her name was Vi and she had the most hateful daughters! They hired me because they didn’t want to ‘deal’ with their mother. That was how they talked about her! Like she was a piece of rental property. They were the ones that paid me. Vi couldn’t because she was broke. She never came out and said it but I got the picture after a while. She worked right up until she physically couldn’t anymore, then she was forced into retirement. She had to work because Susie, her eldest daughter, loved horses but couldn’t quite make the boarding payments at the stable. Vi had to help. Then there was Karen, daughter number two. She’d had a bad divorce, you see. She was trying to recover from credit card life but never really got around to cutting up the plastic. I’ll bet Vi never once signed one of her retirement checks. Those two had them spent before they ever arrived. Dear. I am running off at the mouth, aren’t I?”
The warmth that was in his smile came easier this time. She had a pleasant voice and he enjoyed her story. “It’s what a companion does. How long did you work for Vi?”
“Four years. We got to be good friends, which was easy because Vi was so sweet. We had a lot of fun together. She loved having her hair done and I am the world’s worst hairdresser but she never seemed to mind. Once I turned it purple! I was horrified but I thought she would die laughing. She loved it! She refused to let me fix it and insisted I take her shopping. We spent the whole day just cruising shops, watching people try not to stare. She really got into it, holding up these skimpy dresses saying ‘what do you think?’ – she was definitely not built for anything skimpy…”
“Did she pass on then?” He was careful to keep his voice gentle, hard to do after years of cigars and martinis.
“No.” Christy looked down at her hands. “The daughters fired me.”
He guessed immediately. “They were losing control.”
Christy’s head came up, surprise rounding her eyes even more. “Yes! I mean, at first I kept my mouth shut but to see them take advantage, knowing how good she was, after a while I just, couldn’t.”
He suddenly felt tired. He hadn’t listened this much in years. “You can read to me now.” It came out much more abruptly than he meant it to but he was tired enough not to care.
Christy grabbed at her duffel bag, face red. “What would you like?”
She surprised him with Dickens’s ‘Pickwick Papers’ but maybe he shouldn’t have been. Had the roles been reversed, he would have gone for the classics. One would hardly drag ‘The Flame Within’ or ‘Lust in Louisiana’ to a new job reading to an old man.
When he woke, she was gone. He wasn’t sorry. A little bit of Christy went a long way. How many years had it been since he’d had a steady, daily interaction outside the office? Not since Margaret.
The firing bothered Christy a lot. How many people had he fired in his life? He never thought of it as anything but a need to replace something in his company that wasn’t working with something that was. Maybe it hadn’t bothered those people the way it did Christy. He snorted to himself. He was a little old and a little too close to death for that sort of delusion. Of course, it had bothered them! The brief flash of sorrow was useless as well. It was too late now.
Did Christy still see Vi? Did she still talk to her?
He sighed, wishing he could get out of bed. The worst times were those when his mind was in overdrive and his body twitched with remembered energy. He used to try and heed it, get up and do. For a while, he’d been able to. Then one day he’d fallen and had lain there until Mrs. Cronin had shown up. Soiled and nearly dead with cold, he’d decided the getting up hadn’t been worth the effort.
To take his mind off his twitchy body, he visualized Christy, Vi and the hair incident, picturing it in as much detail as possible. As he drifted back to sleep, they mingled with the warmth of the characters in a Christmas Carol.
* * *
Christy arrived the next day with her odd featured face fixed in a professional, ‘you can’t reach me expression’. She sat in her chair and crossed her legs as she pulled out the book.
“Tell me about your mother.”
She looked up from the book. “All my chatter yesterday made you overtired.”
“According to whom?” He already knew. ‘Overtired’ was not a Christy word.
A blush rose in her cheeks. She was one of those unfortunate people who blushed easily.
“I can fix Mrs. Cronin; she’s quite dispensable,” it was his own turn to blush. Dumb after her confession of being fired yesterday. “Anyway, you were her idea. I’ll speak to her. Now, tell me about your mother. Does she work?”
“No.” Christy’s defenses were firmly in place but he knew how to pry around them. He’d been doing it professionally all his life.
“So, you support her.” He let a bit of sympathy drip into his tone. Not enough to make her justify it but enough to open the door to confidence.
“Mostly. She has some social security from my father and some for herself but it’s inadequate in this day and age.”
“You must get along quite well, to be able to live together.” He’d hit a nerve. Christy squirmed a bit and the set of her mouth changed; suppressed anger.
“Not, exactly. Mother sees it as supporting me, not me supporting her. I work all day but if I want to relax when I get home, than I’m lazy. I’m supposed to fix dinner, do the laundry or help her with whatever needs doing. She has these club meetings she goes to once a week. Then there are her bridge parties. She can’t drive anymore so I have to take her to those. She won’t let me go shopping alone and she’ll only buy for a couple of days at a time so there is another thing that has to be done,” Christy stopped suddenly, aware she’d said far more than she’d meant to. “Sorry. It’s not that bad, really. We had a, disagreement, this morning,”
His next words came as if Margaret were standing beside his bed, telling him what Christy needed. “You take good care of your mother.”
“Not really. I’m rather awful to live with, as you can tell by my little speech.”
“You sound like you do a lot for her.”
“Reluctantly. Kicking and screaming.” Christy sighed. “I really do try. I go home at night vowing I will be patient, telling myself it doesn’t matter if the house is a mess. Then I lose it…”
He wondered that she didn’t see the correlation between Vi’s daughters and her own mother. “Is this your only job?”
“No.” Her eyes widened slightly. How had he known? “That’s why I can’t come until noon. I work four to eleven at the Quick Stop.”
He pictured it – rising at three to go to a minimum wage job, house shabby with barely enough to put food on the table. The vision had ridden his shoulders his whole life. Make money! Get ahead! Save, invest, and ensure that he would never be one of those that were old, poor and dependent. He’d done well. He’d ended up old, rich, and dependent.
“Well,” Christy reached for her bag that had replaced the duffel.
“No. Not yet. Do you play any games?”
“Games? Yes. I like cards. I do okay at checkers because my Grandpa taught me but I was never as good as my brother.”
“You have a brother?”
Christy nodded. “He’s an accountant in New York. He does the stock market junk.”
He bit back the next question. He was well into prying and it was time he quit.
Christy apparently knew the next question though; had had it asked before. “He’s busy. Otherwise, he’d help me more with Mom. Did you want to play a game?”
Checkers? He’d played that with his own grandfather. He and Margaret had worn out decks of cards when they’d first married because it was the only thing they could afford to do. And hours of Monopoly too. Now it seemed like the best time in their marriage; sitting in the old travel trailer with a view of the river playing cards into the evening. They’d gotten it cheap because its weight and age had made it lousy for dragging around the country. For a first home, it had been just right once they’d added a little addition for the woodstove that kept the trailer toasty warm with just enough room in it to take off their boots and coats on snowy winter nights. They’d no power and the two kerosene lamps were just enough to be able to see the cards; forming a soft circle of light, leaving the rest of the trailer in darkness with wood smoke and kerosene perfuming the air, popcorn a luxury if they’d had a good week.
“Mr. Wilkinson? Are you all right?”
“Yes.” He cleared his throat. “Fine…old age…my mind wanders. Checkers would be good. You’d probably trounce me at cards. Get some money from Mrs. Cronin and go buy a set. Also tell her to prepare you lunch.”
“Oh, I don’t need,”
“Lunch.” He said it firmly. “Something good. You can eat while we play.” He would guess her last meal had either been cold cereal, nothing or maybe some fast food at the Quick Stop, spending money she didn’t have. “Lunch is part of the package so you’ll be eating here every day. Tell Mrs. Cronin what you like. I’ll be checking.”
Christy rose, fumbling with her bag. “I’ll be right back then,” she hesitated.
He closed his eyes as the door clicked shut. He wasn’t sure he could play checkers without scattering them all over the board – he should have had her get magnetic ones. He grinned at the vision of him struggle to lift one of ‘those’. Habit had shifted his mind to the material again, ignoring the extra flush in Christy’s face, the shine in her eyes. It was what Margaret had been trying to show him. That was what his whole successful life had missed.
He was almost asleep when Margaret’s voice said ‘you have not!’ loud and clear.
Instant awake. There was no one in the room, of course. It had been in his head. What had he been thinking about? He traced it starting backwards and moving forward. Checkers, playing cards with Margaret, Christy - her bright eyes; the chances he’d missed to lighten the burden of other people’s lives. He’d missed it. Now he was bedridden and ill.
A flash of Christy relaxing as she unloaded the weight of her problems, if only just a little.
Her reaction to his generosity had been like a shot of adrenalin.
He grinned suddenly and could almost feel Margaret’s presence. What else could he do?
Ah. Dear Mrs. ‘dispensable’ Cronin. He shook his head at himself again. Not all caring was warm hugs and soft words. A wicked chuckle escaped him. Dispensable, indeed!
It took him fifteen minutes to look up the number, dial it and make himself understood. It was the first time in years he cared about what time it was, whether he could get the call made and have it happen TODAY.
Mrs. Cronin was going to get flowers. That would put a twist in her knickers.
He grinned and chuckled again.
What else could he do?
Rebecca L Monroe has been published in The MacGuffin, St. Anthony’s Messenger, Bellowing Ark, City Primeval, Karamu, Advocate, Art Times, Catholic Forester, Modern Woodsmen, Nexus, and Wisconsin Review; to name a few. She is the author of a book of short stories published by Bellowing Ark Press entitled “Reaching Beyond”.