On the exit ramp, the cake slides off the back seat. The cakebox, now wedged on the floor, requires both hands and some wriggling to remove it from the car. Looking through the cellophane, now crinkled and dented, Lori sighs. The thick gelatin-like blue and yellow balloons piped along the cake’s edges have slithered and slid across the stiff white frosting into the number seventy.
Dammit, why didn’t she just pick up a cupcake and call it a day? Her dad no longer knew the day of the week, let alone that today is his birthday.
Knocking the car door shut with her hip, she lets the purse fall off of her shoulder. Lori sways and tilts her arms trying to steady herself. Now there’s a crack forming along the top of the cake. She’s off balance and leans a little to the left, her right arm bearing the extra weight of her purse.
A taut green awning canopies the entrance to St. Anthony’s. It feels so long ago since her last visit. Well, if she’s being honest with herself, it was hardly a visit. She’d had to pick up her daughter’s soccer carpool from a nearby field. She phoned ahead, asking the aide to bring her dad down to the nursing home lobby so she could pop in for a quick hello. Today she’ll have a proper visit with her dad. Today she’ll spend the entire day with him. An all-day, make up for past and future absences, kind of visit.
Lori looks back at her car. She could visit over the weekend instead. Her siblings have planned a small gathering Saturday afternoon. There’s always safety in numbers. She scuffs her heel on the cement, leaving a streak of dirt. But she’d promised herself this special time alone with Dad. Balancing the cake on one hip, she presses the intercom button at the front door again.
There’s a small bus idling behind her packed with residents. They’re probably on their way to a museum. God, her dad loved the Museum of Science and Industry. Every winter, Lori and her brothers and sisters piled into the station wagon. Dad would drive past downtown Chicago and into Hyde Park. He’d take the whole family to see the Christmas Around the World exhibit. Stopping at practically every decorated tree, he'd regale the kids with a colorful account of holiday traditions of each nation. Much different than the silence she was met with when he’d sit in front of the TV with his beer every night.
Lori blinks hard. She moves closer to the intercom and says, “Just visiting, my, um,” she clears her throat, “a resident. Just visiting a resident.” Her voice trails off.
As she moves closer to the intercom, the bus roars its engine. She can’t hear the scratchy voice on the other end. The air around her smells of gasoline and rotten eggs. Her sweaty palms begin to slip along the sides of the cakebox.
Through the cellophane, she gazes at the cake’s inscription. “Happy 70th Dad.” Lori begins to cough. Her eyes sting and tear from the bus fumes. Between the cake and her purse, she doesn’t have a free hand to cover her mouth or rub her eyes. She adjusts the cakebox in her hands and squares her shoulders. Everything will be fine. Just go inside the building.
“Ma’am, you can’t just walk in like that.”
Lori freezes. The cake slams against the back of the box. The crack in the middle of the cake now widens. Crumbly dry bits of yellow cake surface and look like small piles of sawdust. Lori blows wisps of hair from her eyes. Honestly, the whole day? Who was she kidding.
“Ma’am, don’t you know the rules?”
The tiny woman behind the desk taps her pen against a notebook. Her gray hair is pinned and sprayed into a heap on top of her head. She straightens her name tag, Geraldine. “You know you have to sign in.”
Suddenly, Lori is back in detention hall having a stare down with Sister Claire. What, does she need a hall pass too? Geraldine’s wrist moves in a few sharp snaps. Tap, tap, tap. The pen hits the sign-in sheet. The woman is glaring at Lori as if she’s committed a serious crime. Lori eyes the trashcan next to the door. She could toss the cake or leave it for Geraldine before making her escape.
As Lori bends over to rest the bulky cakebox on the empty chair, she sees a small oval fish bowl on the edge of the desk. “Interesting fish,” Lori says.
“Oh that’s Benny, my betta fish.” Suddenly the woman is smiling. She clicks her manicured acrylic nail against the side of the bowl. She adds, “He belonged to Mrs. Farnsworth, God rest her soul. She was a resident here for over ten years.” Benny sits in the middle of the murky water and doesn’t move. Lori leans in closer and looks below the slimy ring around the top. Benny moves his tail a tiny bit. Lori wonders what it's like to live in a place like that.
Benny eases his way back into the muck at the bottom of the bowl. A cloudy film covers his eye. Can he see anything at all? Flush him, put him out of his misery. That’s what Lori would do if he was in her house. “This fish is soaking in its own filth.”
Geraldine’s fingers halt over her keyboard. As Lori leaves the office, she catches the old woman’s horrified expression.
Now, standing in the elevator, Lori juggles the limp cakebox in one hand as she repeatedly presses the door-close button. The doors don’t close fast enough before a woman enters.
The woman looks about her dad’s age. She’s wearing a navy tweed suit. Lori looks down at her own cashmere sweater. The hem of her jeans sits just above her leather booties. The cakebox rests lightly on her silver belt buckle.
The space begins to feel smaller. Lori takes another step back. What’s taking so long for this elevator to move already?
“So which is it?” The woman inches closer to Lori.
Lori’s heel smacks into the corner of the elevator and she rests the back of her head against the wall. Her reply is curt. “Which is what?”
The woman jabs a finger at the cakebox as its edge further collapses into itself. The veins in her hands are purple and protrude from her crepey skin. “A grandma’s or a grandpa’s birthday today?”
Lori clutches the cake closer to her. She should’ve tossed it in the bin at the office while she had the chance.
The woman presses the button for the second floor, then covers her mouth with the tips of her arthritic fingers. “Oh, I see you’re headed up to the memory care floor. Grandma or grandpa, dear?”
Lori swallows hard and stares up at the glowing numbers, willing the elevator to move faster. She can’t bear to see the narrowing of eyes, the tilt of the head, that extension of sympathy and sorrow. She doesn’t need one more person feeling sorry for her. She says, “It’s someone I barely know.”
Lori makes her way to her dad’s room. Empty, thank god. She slams her back against the wall. Closing her eyes, she tries to slow her breath. There’s an orange-and-blue crocheted afghan neatly folded across his bed. Who gave him that? She thinks of Benny and sincerely hopes the afghan isn’t a leftover from a recently departed resident.
A narrow chest of drawers is covered by a TV and framed pictures. There are a few birthday cards balancing upright on the nightstand. She places the cake on the afghan. A moist, buttery smudge is leaching through the bottom of the cakebox.
Lori tucks her brown hair behind her ears and pulls out her cell phone. A text from her daughter: Hey mom, do I really have to ride my bike to driver’s ed today? My calves hurt from soccer practice. Can you PLEASE drive me?
Lizzie is constantly riding her bike. But, a good excuse to duck out of here early. She pecks at the phone screen: I’ll pick you up at 3:30.
Her phone buzzes again. This time a text from the office: Your relo client wants a second showing of home on Abbotsford Lane ASAP, they leave town this evening. Shall I send Wendy with them?
Lori had a feeling something like this would happen. She left a message with the managing broker that she’d be taking the whole day off. Lori shakes her head. Splitting her commission with Wendy, the young agent fresh from the city, is bad enough, but giving her a leg up in the suburban market?
“Looks like you have a visitor.”
Lori spins around quickly. A male aide is standing behind her dad’s wheelchair.
“Lori’s here to celebrate your special day, Mark.” The aide parks Mark next to his bed.
Lori raises her eyebrows and smiles. How can this man possibly remember her name? She’s only met him once or twice. She searches her mind for his name.
“Hi Dad, it’s me, Lori.” His eyes are vacant. She hesitates before leaning forward to kiss him. Her head dips and sways first toward the top of his head, then his forehead. She quickly pulls back after a dry peck on his cheek. She wants to pluck off the small piece of toilet paper stuck to his chin. When she sees that it’s crusted in blood, she tucks her hands into her pockets. She begins rocking in place.
“I’m afraid your dad squirmed a bit.” The aide gently removes the tissue. “He had to tell me a joke.” The aide leans around so Mark can see his face. “It was a funny joke, Mark.”
Mark laughs quietly. He adds, “And I was just warming up.”
Lori is relieved. Dad’s alert and in a good mood. He’s freshly shaven and smells like lemons.
Mark smiles at Lori. “Well, hello there.”
Lori places her hand on her dad’s shoulder. “Hello yourself!” He recognizes her, she’s pretty sure. She winks at the aide. “A little game we always play.” Lori feels the tension in her neck loosen and asks, “You having a good day, Dad?”
His head bobs up and down like a toddler. Yes, this is going to be a good day after all. Lori wants to wrap her arms around her dad and rest his head on her shoulder. But Mark is staring blankly out the window. Lori taps her phone against her chin. She feels an urge to call her mother. Mom was the first to clue her in about the changes happening. She’d said Dad spent all day changing a simple light switch, something he could usually do in thirty minutes tops. She found his screwdriver in the dishwasher later that night.
Lori begins to dial her mom but hesitates. When Dad moved into the nursing home, Mom only visited a few times. Reminding him that she was his wife was just too painful, she’d told Lori. Lori slowly lowers her phone. She’s on her own here.
The aide whose name Lori can’t remember sets the brakes on the wheels of the chair and says, “We went for our daily walk, isn’t that right, Mark?”
“Sun is out today,” her dad says. “Too windy yesterday.”
The aide wipes spittle from her dad’s chin and says, “That’s right.” He chuckles. “You said that wind was gonna knock you outta your chair.”
Mark adds, “Uh-huh, blew the hat right off my head.” He looks up toward Lori. His face takes on a flatness. He asks, “Where’d you come from?”
The aide interrupts, “You know Lori, your daughter.”
“My daughter’s in Phoenix,” Mark replies.
“Dad, that’s your other daughter, Maggie.”
Mark grips the wheelchair armrests. “Other daughter?”
Lori shifts her weight. She looks at her phone, blinking back tears.
The aide chimes in, “Mark, you know, Lori.”
She will not cry in front of this man. She finishes her text: Do not send Wendy. I will meet clients at 4 at the home. This will be tight, dropping Lizzie at driver’s ed and all. She’ll just leave St. Anthony’s a few hours earlier than she originally planned. What’s the difference anyway?
“I’m sorry, were you speaking to me?” Lori grabs the aide’s hand and shakes it. He’s the only middle-aged Black man on the floor and she wishes she could remember his name. Christ, is this how it started for Dad? She grips his hand tighter and shakes faster. His name is at the tip of her tongue. Peter or Patrick or something with a “P.”
The aide carefully withdraws his hand. “I was just saying we had a nice outing together.”
As Lori looks down at her buzzing phone she mumbles, “A walk, yes, it does seem to calm him down.” Her attention on her cell phone, a text from the office: Wendy says she can take clients. Lori’s thumbs strike out a frustrated reply: NO WENDY! Stall clients - do whatever it takes. She adds three hand prayer emojis.
When she looks up from her phone, the aide is gone.
Left alone with her dad, Lori squats next to him and forces a smile. “So, Dad, you got some fresh air today?” She snaps her fingers and practically shouts, “Paul!” Lori stands up quickly. “That’s his name, Paul.”
Mark looks questioningly at her and says, “Yeah, that’s Paul. Who else would it be?”
“So, Dad, you and Paul took a walk?” The blank expression returns. He lowers his head and gazes into his lap. She’s lost him again. Was he ever really with her to begin with? She stutters and her words come out quickly in a jumble. “Hey, Dad, today’s your birthday and I’ve brought you a cake.”
Lori reaches for the box. She loses her grip on the wilted cardboard edges. The cake plunks back onto the bed. She peels back the lid and then scoops her hands beneath the box. The warm oily residue clings to her palms. Her dad is still staring into his lap even as she holds the cake under his chin. He’s got to be able to smell all that butter and sugar. Still, no response.
Lori’s arms begin to ache and she puts the cake back on the bed. Maybe she could invite Paul back in for some cake. She frantically digs through her purse. How could she forget to pack a sharp knife? She grabs one of the plastic forks and begins sawing away at the stiff icing. Dammit. She uses her finger tips to pick out a broken plastic gold tine. Mark’s eyelids begin to close. She stabs at the dense cake with the fork’s handle and finally plops a crumbly heap onto a plate.
“How about a piece of cake, Dad?” He’s never shied away from sweets. She holds the plate with a blob of cake in front of Mark. His head perks up and he opens his mouth. “Oh,” Lori says. Right, okay. She guesses she’ll have to feed him though she’s not sure when this started. She lifts a large bite on the broken fork toward his mouth leaving a trail of crumbs on the carpet.
Mark begins to cough and gag. His chest heaves and dry bits of cake spray onto his belly and across the bed. “Dad, Dad?” Chunks of cake tumble onto the floor as Lori reaches for the styrofoam cup of water on the nightstand.
Lori wipes icing from Mark’s chin and brushes off crumbly bits of cake. She says, “How about we head down to the community room for the magician show?”
Lori swerves the wheelchair just before her dad’s knee is about to collide with the wall.
“Watch it,” Mark grumbles. “Where’s Paul?”
“Why would you need Paul when you’ve got me? Besides you taught me how to drive, remember?”
“Sure hope you paid attention,” her dad replies.
Bright sunlight floods in through the community room’s tall windows. Lori winces. Her purse dangles from one of the wheelchair handles and knocks against her thigh. The room is crowded with canes, wheelchairs and walkers.
A walker bumps into the back of Lori’s calf. Her knee buckles. She turns and finds a man wearing flannel pajama pants. He steers around Lori and her dad’s wheelchair. There are dust bunnies collecting on the tennis balls at the ends of his walker. The old guy is already in the middle of the room. Lori clasps the handles of Mark’s wheelchair tighter.
“Brace yourself, Dad. There’s magic ahead.” Lori inches into the room, passing a long table under the windows. There are tins of cookies sitting on the blue plastic tablecloth. Christ, what is she doing here? She’s glad to see Paul, who is filling paper cups with apple juice, but she should be in her office working on marketing for Sunday’s open house. She should be with her relo clients touring prospective homes. Instead she’s watching old people eat cookies in their pajamas.
Women congregate around the table. The woman in the tweed suit from the elevator is holding court. Lori rolls her eyes. The queen bee raises her hand to her forehead then her heart. Lori presses her lips together and moves farther away from the women.
The magic show has already started in the back of the room. The last row of metal folding chairs is nearly empty. Lori removes a few chairs, leaving them against the wall. After pushing Mark’s chair into the row, she finally sits to his right, shielding herself from the women at the cookie table.
The magician is a middle-aged man wearing a red satin shirt with puffy sleeves and black pants. Luckily, no cape or showy top hat. He digs his fingers into the cuff of his shirt and roots around. Finally, his assistant waddles over and unbuttons his cuff. He shoves his entire hand into his sleeve pulling out a line of colored scarves.
Even from the back row, Lori can see the red satin sleeve deflate as the pile of scarves on the floor grows into a heap. The assistant has one hand on her hip and raises her other arm. Her glittery leotard is worn at her hip, exposing patches of nude color fabric. Lori slouches in her chair. But Mark is smiling like a school boy. Lori rubs her temples then faces her dad. His eyes haven’t left the stage. He points at the show and even laughs a bit. Lori feels a lump in her throat. Dad doesn’t even know she’s here. Leaning forward, she looks past her dad when she notices a woman in a black wig making her way between the empty folding chairs and down their row. She sits directly next to Mark on his left side.
Lori pokes her head around her dad and watches the woman carefully arrange a napkin full of cookies on her lap. The woman’s red lipstick stains the side of her dixie cup.
Lori shifts on the hard metal chair. Her back is aching and she rubs her neck. As she recrosses her legs, apple juice flies past her.
The woman in the wig swats at Mark.
“Get your hands off me,” she cries.
Mark wrings his hands together. He reaches again toward the woman.
The woman stands and her cookies tumble to the floor.
“Somebody help me,” the woman pleads.
Lori flies out of her seat.
“This man is attacking me,” the woman yells. Her black wig slips further exposing white stringy cobwebs of hair.
Mark snatches his hand back into his lap.
Lori reaches for the fallen cookies.
The woman is now standing over her dad. She is smacking the top of his head with her empty juice cup.
Mark raises his arm.
Lori reaches out to stop him but is surprised by the strength of his arm.
She steps back, her dad’s arm still suspended in the air.
Suddenly Paul is there. He delicately places a hand on Mark and speaks softly.
Mark looks at Paul as though he’s never seen him before and shouts a terrible, unforgivable word.
Lori releases the cookies crumbled in her tight fists. Her hands cover her mouth. She tries to move. She wants to go to her dad but can’t. She’s nauseous and begins to gag. It’s the soap. Dad washed her brother Brian’s mouth out with Irish Spring when Brian’d said the same awful thing about a Black boy who beat him at the track meet. Her brothers and sisters were lined up along the hallway near the bathroom the whole time. Dad turned and looked at them all, holding up the soap. He waved the bar slowly across the entire line of kids. Lori shuddered when his eyes locked with hers. They all stood and watched it happen.
Paul says something but Lori can’t quite make out his words. There’s a ringing in her ears. Paul places a hand on her arm.
Paul eases Mark’s wheelchair from the row of folding chairs. He says, “Why don’t you step out for a cup of coffee or a sandwich? I’ll handle everything from here.”
“A break. Sure.”
She tries to make eye contact with Paul but he is looking away.
“Best if you go now and let your dad rest.”
The audience watches the magician attempt to juggle foam balls. She’s not sure when the show started again. The residents clap as the colorful balls float through the air and bounce on the stage.
Lori begins to straighten folding chairs back in line with the others. Her brother Brian had gargled with water as the soap suds bubbled down his chin and shirt. Dad said that kind of language was unacceptable. They were not to speak such words ever. Lori picks up the smashed paper cup from the community room floor. When she stands up, Paul is already gone.
“Hardly know him, huh?” The woman in the navy tweed suit clicks her tongue.
“Excuse me?” Lori crumples the paper cup in her hands.
“On the elevator, you said you hardly knew him.”
Lori can smell the apple juice on the woman’s breath.
The woman says, “I know exactly the kind of person you are.”
Lori clutches her purse as she weaves through the sea of wheelchairs and walkers. She looks back, and the woman in navy tweed still has her arms crossed and she’s glaring at Lori. Behind her, the magician and his assistant take a bow.
Lori reminds herself to stop at the office and sign out. The office is empty. Geraldine must be on her lunch break, thank God. She spots the fish bowl from the corner of her eye. Benny, Benny. Lori leans closer over the glass bowl and wrinkles her nose. The dank odor of mold and mildew is stronger. Still floating in your own filth, huh? Lori imagines taking Benny and his bowl into the ladies room. She’d tip the slimy glass bowl until all that dirty water emptied into the toilet, along with Benny. Benny and all the muck he’s been living in would swirl around. She wouldn’t even wait as it flushed and disappeared down the toilet. Lori hears someone cough. She turns around and it's Geraldine standing in the doorway. Lori pulls her hands away from Benny’s bowl. How long has this old woman been watching her?
Lori sits at the deli counter with a pastrami on rye, untouched. One of her dad’s favorites. He’d lift her onto the stool at the counter at Jack’s diner. She’d twirl in circles while he chatted with the waitress or the person next to him. He’d place half of the hot sandwich on a napkin in front of her. All that butter and melted cheese would seep onto the counter. He’d push the basket of fries between them. “Don’t tell Mom,” he’d wink as he poured catsup along the side.
Lori pushes her sandwich away. Why didn’t she ever bring him sandwiches and fries? During those early days at the nursing home when he could still feed himself, he could have handled the thick toasted bread and crispy fries.
Lori flinches when her cell phone pings. A text from the office: Clients said OK see you at 4. Don’t be late they have a flight to catch.
Lori stares down at her phone. She’s spent enough time at the nursing home. He thinks she’s Maggie, anyway. Why should she disappoint her clients? She begins to type: Nvm, I can be there in less than an hour.
Her thumb hovers over the send button. But what about Paul? Dad was confused. When he let loose all that fear and frustration, Lori stood silently before Paul. She’d held her hands in front of her as if to catch a flood of words that should’ve been spilling out of her mouth. Words of apology, of repair. For a fleeting moment, she saw the life gone from Paul’s eyes. A wispy shadow of pain moving across his face.
Lori deletes her text to the office.
St. Anthony’s minibus is now parked in the back of the lot. It will sit there until tomorrow’s scheduled outing. Another day of outings, physical therapy, meal times and magicians. For Dad, she’s just a vague memory of a dream. A dream she tries to catch hold of in the early waking hours of the morning. So brief the second she opens her eyes, it’s gone. What’s the point? This whole place, this whole day. She wishes she could just flush it all down the toilet along with Benny the betta fish. She turns the ignition back on. Just before she reverses her car she flips the gear back into park. Her hands beat against the steering wheel.
She forces the car door open. One foot is on the pavement and the other is still in the car. She hesitates and rests her head in her arm.
It’s Paul. She sees his sneakers first but knows it's him before she even lifts her head. “Paul, I’m sorry. I wouldn’t blame you if you never want to see me or my dad again.”
Paul holds a lighted cigarette and kicks at a few pebbles. He watches them scatter across the pavement. “You know he talks about you.”
“Your dad. Out of the blue. It’s, Lori is good at math. Or, Lori has a great arm and knows how to throw like a boy.” Paul closes his eyes as he takes a long drag from his cigarette.
“Great, now he remembers me as a boy,” Lori says, only half joking.
Paul turns his head and exhales a steady stream of smoke.
Lori steps forward. “How do you do it? Everyday?”
Paul crushes the butt beneath his heel.
Lori closes the car door and turns toward the nursing home.
Paul says, “How about I bring him down to meet you on the patio out back. Just sign in at the office and wait at the bench under the big elm. He loves it there.”
Benny’s bowl is clean. Well, what do you know? Through the clear water Lori can see Benny’s red and blue scales. His fins, bright and vibrant, billow and fold, moving him smoothly in the fresh water.
Geraldine, the receptionist, lifts her head from her computer and nods.
Lori takes her time walking down the hall to the patio. After her visit she’ll bring Dad back up to his room herself. She’ll clean up any bits of cake on his bed and floor. She’ll pack up what’s left of the cake. Maybe Geraldine would like a slice. That cake may actually bring a smile to someone in this building.
Lori finds the bench shaded under the elm. Beyond the wrought iron fence she sees the magician and his assistant. Dressed in street clothes, they maneuver a dolly carrying large boxes to the parking lot. There’s no magic here. Just two more people trying to do their job.
Lori uncrosses her arms and leans into the bench. She could visit every Monday. She could bring soup, read a book to her dad. She can reschedule a few appointments. Then she remembers the home she needs to stage for market, a book club she’s scheduled to host next week, Lizzie’s soccer tournament at the end of the month.
Her phone pings. The office: The clients can’t wait until 4. They need to see the house ASAP. I’m sending Wendy unless I hear otherwise from you.
Lori ignores this and instead sends a text to Lizzie: Change of plans. Ride your bike to driver’s ed. I want to spend more time with my dad. She switches her phone to silent mode and drops it in her purse.
The sky is clear. It’s one of those fall days when a sweater is enough. For the first time, Lori notices the thick ivy resting on the red brick of the nursing home. The leaves are saffron and deep orange now. At the top of the elm, the amber leaves rustle. She sees the woman in the black wig make her way down another row of chairs. She hears the voice over the intercom checking in another visitor. And magic. More magic.
Paul’s voice has a lightness to it. “Mark, your lovely daughter, Lori, is here to visit with you.”
Lori catches Paul’s eye. His dimples surface; she hadn’t noticed them before. Her lips mouth the words, “Thank you.” Then Paul leaves her alone with her dad.
Mark raises his head toward the sun. His eyes are closed. He takes slow, easy breaths.
Lori scoots along the bench closer to him and rests her hands in her lap. She doesn’t need to make any plans. She doesn’t have to figure it all out right now.
Her father’s eyes follow the colorful leaves that fall from the elm and float onto his lap. The autumn golds and rich burgundies will eventually fade, becoming dry and brittle. But for now, Dad’s here. She’s here.
Dad tosses a few leaves toward her.
Lori tosses a handful back. “Hello yourself.”