Milton pulled his worn, blue bathrobe tight over his chest. He didn’t want one of those young nurse’s aides to see the way his flesh hung over his old bones. Even he thought it was disgusting, and it was his body.
Wheeling his chair up to the TV, Milton grabbed the remote off the Velcro strip that was stuck to the cabinet in hopes that everyone using it would be kind enough to stick it back. Flipping through the channels, he stopped at WMIL Milwaukee’s Evening News Hour. The headlines were just ending and the first round of commercials began.
“You know,” he said to Jerry, who was sitting next to him in a broken-down recliner that tended to suddenly drop its footrest just as you dozed off. “You’d think a person would get used to seeing themselves age after awhile, wouldn’t you?” Looking down at his scrawny legs, Milton pushed the slipper off his right foot by catching its heel with his left toe. His toenails were in bad need of clipping. Thick and yellow, the smaller ones curled around the top of the toes while the big one grew out like a pony’s hoof. Milton felt sorry for anybody who’d have to do that pruning job so never asked anyone to do it. He gave up trying to reach them himself.
“I look in the mirror and I think I don’t look ninety-two, but I sure as hell must.” He rubbed his shin where he had bumped himself on the bed frame the day before, adding a dark purple bruise to the collection that seemed to grow with every little bump and bang. “A person don’t realize you’re aging until you hit forty.” He ran his hand under his chin and played with the wattle that used to be a firm double chin. “Then you deny it for a decade, thinking nobody’s noticing. Of course, they all see. Talkin’ behind your back about how you got that bald spot on the top of your head. Then by sixty the bald spots’ spread up to your forehead and the big belly that you acquired over the prosperous years begins to disappear.” He looked down into a boney lap. “By eighty it’s used up like your retirement fund, and you’re a scrawny crow. Hell, I even got old lady boobs hanging down.”
Hoping Jerry would at least give him a grin, Milton repeated himself loudly, “I say, I even got old lady boobs, Jerry.” He moved his hands up and down in front of his chest as if he were bouncing water balloons. Jerry nodded, letting Milton know he was still in this world.
“So it goes when you get old,” Milton sighed. It was his favorite saying these days. “Now stop your yapping, and let me listen.” Milton grinned, showing his long teeth. Jerry reached over, took the remote from Milton’s hand and hit the closed-caption setting. The print ran across the bottom portion of the screen like a banner marquee.
There had been an accident on the Marquette interchange. A truck had flipped over the side railing and landed in the parking lot six stories below. “I told them the damn thing wasn’t safe back in the ‘60s when they first built it,” Milton grunted.
A young woman with bright blue eyes and a tiny Barbie doll face gave a report on the construction at the new convention center. “She’d better get out of those high heels and put a hard hat on when she’s walking around down there. Get hit in the head. Dope.” Milton shook his head and shrugged his shoulders.
Then came the second slew of commercials followed by a report on a baby found dead in his crib two days earlier. The screen showed a drawing of a baby’s head with the blood vessels mapped onto it. Then the drawing was animated showing the baby being shaken by the shoulders, and the head swinging back and forth. The blood vessels changed from well-defined rivers to a webbed delta. “Shaken Baby Syndrome,” Milton read. “Never heard of that before.” A photo of the year-old boy appeared on the screen. Toothless and drooling, he sat between the legs of a giant Tigger.
“A tragedy,” the news anchor said. “The child’s nineteen-year-old father is being questioned in regard to that death.”
“Interesting.” Milt sat back in his chair and rubbed his stubbled chin. He wondered if the father knew better. Probably, like him, he’d never heard that shaking could hurt a baby. The baby probably cried too much, so he got irritated, Milton thought. He remembered how irritated he got the last time his grandson, Jeff, brought his baby to the nursing home and it wouldn’t stop crying. Then Milton hooked this new bit of information onto old memories. It was a technique that he had learned in therapy. He liked to use it to prove to himself that he could still learn new things.
Milton looked at Jerry, who pointed a bony finger at him and said deadpan, “Don’t shake the baby.”
“Ha, ha,” Milton laughed at Jerry’s evil eye. “Yeah, yeah. Don’t shake the baby.” He flipped through channels to watch the weather on another station.
Jerry was Milton’s only living friend. They hadn’t known each other long, just since Milton came to the nursing home eight months ago. Milton often wondered if Jerry and he would have been friends if they had met anywhere else. Milton was a talker, Jerry wasn’t. At least he wasn’t now. Milton wondered if Jerry had talked more before he went stone deaf. He guessed not.
Jerry was a bookkeeper. Milton always thought of bookkeepers as keep-to-themselves people. Milton had owned one of the largest furniture stores in Milwaukee. You have to be a talker when you own a business. Sometimes people only come back because you told them a good story the last time they bought a sofa. They want to hear another one now that they’ve got the money for a matching chair.
Even though Jerry was a keep-to-himself kind of guy, Milton and he shared company most of every day. Milton didn’t mind Jerry’s not talking because he preferred to listen to himself than to most others. And he figured Jerry didn’t care if he rattled on a bit too much because he didn’t hear Milt anyway.
On Sunday Karen, Milton’s youngest child who was now sixty-six herself, came to visit. Karen was the only kid left in town, so it was her duty to look after Milton. Even though Milt told her she didn’t have to waste every Sunday visiting him, she did anyway.
“I’ve got to know that you’re getting your money’s worth here,” she’d say jokingly. “After all, it’s my inheritance you’re spending.”
That was the kind of thing Milton’s wife, Gertie, would have said. Karen was a lot like Gertie, both in looks and personality. She was short and round with a square face and thick hair that was now totally gray. Every so often, if Karen came just as Milton was pulling out of his sleep, he would mistake her for Gertie and be disappointed when he fully woke.
Milt remembered Karen’s daughter’s wedding, which was just a few months after Gertie passed. Karen came to him, “Dad, let’s have a dance.” But as Milt led her in the waltz, he looked at her face and was so reminded of dancing with his dear wife that he was overcome with emotion and had to make an excuse to break away.
Karen was satisfied being a wife and mother and having a little job at Target. She never asked for too much and was always willing to give what she didn’t have. She was like Gertie that way too.
Milton had Karen sneak him food that wasn’t on his diet. This week she pulled out a piece of apple pie from Angelo’s Bakery and a box of Whitman’s chocolates he would finish before Tuesday.
“Now make sure they don’t catch you with these chocolates,” Karen said as she pulled off the cellophane wrap.
“Yeah, that’s good,” Milt nodded. “Pull off that damned wrapping. I can’t manage it myself. But you know, the aides, when they know you got chocolates, they come in more often if you share.” ”
“You told me.” Karen rolled her eyes. “So then share. But for heaven’s sake, you’ve eaten eggs fried in bacon grease all your life and you’re ninety-three next month. Dad, you eat anything you want.”
“And how about a drop of whiskey?” Milton grinned.
“Sorry, I didn’t have a chance to stop. You know you can only get those tiny bottles at certain stores.”
“Bring a big bottle,” Milt grumbled.
“Dad, you know where I draw the line. You don’t know how it mixes with the medications you’re on. You could overdose.”
“Umph. Least I can’t fall seeing as I can get up by myself.” He winked at her.
Milton and Karen chatted about the usual — the kids and grandkids and now great-grandkids as well. They said things that Milt knew they had said to each other the week before, but it was OK. It kept the conversation going. Karen told him that her youngest son, David, was on a camping trip that weekend with his twelve-year-old boy and four of his son’s friends.
“Camping?” Milton said. “That would’ve been the day my old man would’ve taken me and my friends camping.” He pulled up the lap wrap and tucked it in around his legs.
“Dad, nobody went camping back when you were a boy. For heaven’s sake, you were lucky to have a good roof over your head. Why would you leave it?”
“I suppose.” Milton thought about it and figured she was right. If you would have gone to sleep in the woods when he was a kid, it would have been because you were running away from home. “Bring that stool over here.” Karen pulled the footrest over and gently lifted his feet onto it. “Thanks.”
The old man grew quiet. Like a creeping frost, sadness deadened thought, leaving confused emotion. Weighing down his shoulders, it tugged at his chest so intensely that he felt it could stop his heartbeat if it so wished.
“My old man,” Milton said, feeling his mouth pull downward and lips twitch, “never had a good word to say to any of us.” He breathed in sharply, feeling his gut squeeze up against his lungs. “Never a story. Never a joke. Never even a smile.”
Karen reached out and stroked the top of his hand, looking past his tortured face. “Grandpa had his problems.”
Milton focused on a round smudge on the yellow concrete block wall and inhaled slowly, trying to focus his eyes and his mind. His voice was soft and weak. “His problems always started and stopped with us, I guess.”
“Well, that’s history, Dad, and you shouldn’t be dwelling on it. You were a great dad in spite of having no role model.” Karen now had a teachy tone, like Gertie used when she was trying to make Milt feel stupid.
He closed his eyes, nesting in the dark sadness as if floating underwater. Not trying to locate the source of the sorrow, he just held it.
“Hey.” Milt remembered Karen. “Take Jerry there a couple of them chocolates on your way out,” he said softly, managing a half smile. “Tell him it’s to fatten him up so his boobs don’t flop around so much.”
“We’ll see you next week, Dad,” Karen said softly as she kissed him on the top of the head, then left.
“Mutt and Jeff” Milton liked to call himself and Jerry after the two old comic-strip characters, one tall and one short. Jerry was still about five foot ten, even after his old age shrinking. Milton shriveled to about five two. Jerry looked like a mutt. He had a large donkey face and big ears. His nose was long with dark, hair-filled nostrils. He hadn’t always been that ugly. Milton had seen Jerry’s wedding picture once. Jerry was more even featured then. Handsome even.
“You got a brother, Jerry. I know that because I met him that time he came from Chicago. That all? Got any other siblings?” Milt sat with Jerry on the verandah, overlooking the lawn. It was Monday morning, or so he thought.
“Cardinal,” Jerry said, pointing up to the oak tree in the middle of the yard.
“Yep, sure is.” Milton wheeled his chair inside and came back with a pad of paper and a pen. He wrote his question to Jerry.
“Two sisters.” Jerry nodded as he read. “Kay and Lilly. They’re both passed on. Lilly died at sixty-four. Breast cancer. Kay last year. Old age, I guess. I don’t know what killed her in the end. She was sick awhile.” Jerry looked straight ahead trying to find more birds.
“I had two sisters and a brother,” Milton said. “The two sisters lived long, like me. The brother, he died when he was about two. They don’t know what from. Didn’t do no autopsy back then.”
“Got some more chocolates?” Jerry asked. He hadn’t heard a word Milton said, but Milton didn’t care. His thoughts on his brother were his own.
“Here.” Milton pulled the box from his tote bag and, fumbling a bit, lifted off the top. “Help yourself.” Jerry’s large hands shook as he tried to pick a nut cluster out of its brown paper cup. “Here,” Milton pulled the box back onto his lap. “Here.” He handed it to Jerry. “That one there’s a caramel.” He pointed to a square. “Have to give it to the aide. Too hard to chew. Next time I’ll tell Karen get a box without caramels.”
The two men sat sucking and chewing and wiping the bit of chocolate that trickled out the corner of their mouths. It was a sunny spring day. Bright and green and new. Milton appreciated spring days, especially because he knew that a lot of people his age don’t make it through harsh Wisconsin winters. He thought he wouldn’t. The day Karen brought him to the nursing home, he told her that he wouldn’t make it through March. Now it was May, and Milt was feeling better than he had for a long time. Nonetheless, a day didn’t pass when he didn’t think it could be his last. So, every day he prepared. Remembering. Thinking of wrongs he might need to right. Looking for lessons he may have missed. Milt believed that what he learned in Catholic grade school to be purgatory was a between state where you get to go over all your life and to see people you may have misjudged and to understand why they did things and why you did things and make amends with them and yourself. If you can figure it all out before you die, well then you don’t need purgatory. He told that to Karen once, and she said the Catholics don’t teach purgatory anymore. Funny they could just do away with what he was told was truth.
Milt often thought of his kids. He wanted to be sure that there was nothing between them when he passed. Nothing he may not have understood. Nothing they could hate him for. Sometimes Karen was willing to help him think through those memories. Help him sort fact from fiction. At other times, like yesterday, she wasn’t. He also knew he had to be a bit careful. Karen had her favorite siblings and nieces and nephews, so her view could be a bit biased.
Milton moved his chair slightly to catch a ray of sunshine. It fell warmly on the back of his neck. He stuffed another piece of candy in his mouth, smelling the sweetness before he tasted it.
“I remember I got caught stealing a chocolate from Ma’s box at Christmas when I was about ten,” he said to Jerry, who was gazing out into the lawn. “The old man walloped the hell outta me. Momma had to pull him off. Lucky she didn’t get nailed herself.” Milton followed Jerry’s gaze to a patch of daffodils bobbing in the warm breeze. He slowly shook his head and mumbled to himself, “He was two sheets to the wind, but that was no excuse.” The daffodils blurred. “He walloped us when he was sober, too.”
Milt scanned the horizon noticing how much more spring there was than yesterday. Leaves half unfurled. Grass nearly in need of cutting. Brown flower beds with early iris stems shooting up.
“You hit your kids, Jerry?” Milton wanted an answer this time, so he wrote it out on the pad and gave it to Jerry.
“Once in awhile.” Jerry answered. “Not the girls. Never the girls.” Sticking a finger in his mouth, he scraped fudge off a molar. “But Kenny, once in awhile. Kenny had a big mouth. No respect.” Milton noticed chocolate smeared on Jerry hands and offered him a tissue from his tote. Lint clung in tiny pieces to the goo as Jerry wiped his palms. “Funny. Kenny sees me more than the rest of ‘em do. He turned out all right.”
“Yeah. I guess walloping don’t hurt once in awhile.” Milton pulled his blanket up from his knees to cover his lap. The tiny ray of sunlight had grown. He leaned forward so it warmed his entire back. Finished with talking and thinking, he closed his eyes and slept doubled over until the nurse’s aide shook him awake and asked if he wanted to go in and rest.
“Hell, I was resting until you woke me up,” Milton growled. “Trouble with this place is nobody lets you in peace. Worse than a damned airplane, always waking you up for something.” The young woman stepped back, an apologetic look on her face. “Yes, now you can take me in. Now that you woke me up.”
The aide pushed his chair into his room and helped Milton onto the bed.
“Hey,” he said, “did you see that report on TV last night about that baby they found dead?”
“No,” she answered.
“They said it was shaken baby syndrome. You ever hear of that?”
“When I did my babysitting certification.” The aide fluffed the pillow and stuck it under Milton’s head.
“Well, how hard does the baby have to be shaken to hurt it?”
“I don’t know.” She pulled the blankets loose and tucked them around Milton’s feet. “Tina Garcia would know more about it than I do. She used to work in the emergency ward at Children’s.”
“Well, you’re studying to be a nurse, aren’t you?”
“Yes, that’s nice that you remembered.” She smiled and left the room.
That night Milton woke with his pajamas damp from sweat. He had been dreaming but didn’t know what about. There was just a feeling of helplessness. Once awake, he thought of his sister Iva and reached for the phone to call her, but after dialing the number he looked at the clock and saw it was 3 a.m., so he hung up. Maybe she had died, he thought. Then he remembered that she was already dead.
Milt panicked. Maybe he was dying. Maybe that’s why he felt so strange. Or maybe he had already died. He pushed the glowing red button on the wall to call the nurse. Then he lay back on the bed and felt the pulse in his neck. His heart was still beating. He heard his roommate Tony stir in the next bed. “Tony,” he whispered, “Tony!” Tony just snorted and rolled over. Then the nurse appeared in the doorway. She was his least favorite, being sloppy in her appearance with a smell that made him wonder what she learned in nursing school about hygiene.
“Lucky I wasn’t having a heart attack,” Milt scolded her. “I’d be dead by now!”
“I was in the restroom,” she replied with a terse tone. Milton knew that was a lie. She was watching TV in the lounge instead of sitting at the desk by the monitor where she belonged.
“Well, never mind now. You can go back to your TV.”
“I wasn’t . . .”
“Never mind.” He shouted and waved her away. “Damned lazy.”
The first thing in the morning Milton phoned his cousin Joannie. Joannie had grown up across the street. She was the youngest and only surviving of three brothers and four sisters. Their house had been Milton’s hideout. As a boy, Milton often wished he had Joannie’s Dad, who was his mother’s brother, for a father. He was a good uncle and must have known Milt needed some attention because he always had one of the boys come and fetch him when they got a baseball game going. Joannie answered, and Milton asked after her health. She said she wasn’t complaining because no one wants to listen anyway.
“Joannie. Something weird happened last night. I had a bad dream and when I woke up, I was thinking about Iva. I picked up the phone to call her, then remembered she was dead. Isn’t that crazy? Do you think she was calling me to her, Joannie?”
Joannie reminded Milton that he was ninety-two-years old, and that he would be lucky if his sister called him to die in his sleep.
“Yeah. I guess,” Milton said. “You know, I got a place next to my baby brother. You remember I had a brother, don’t you, Joannie? Charlie was his name. He’s got a little marker just laid into the ground. Guess you don’t need much for a baby. Probably nothing left of him by now. The boys are to the right of the folks and the girls are to the left. Of course, their husbands are there, too, and Gertie. Gertie headstone and my marker is the biggest. They’re bigger than the old man’s. He would be mad about that, but who gives a damn. He’s not where the rest of us are going anyway. He’s gone to hell for sure, the son of a bitch.” Milton was talking loud, this time not so he could be heard, but in anger.
Joannie told Milton not to talk ill of the dead.
“Don’t matter now because he’s dead dead. You know what I mean, Joannie? A person’s dead dead when there isn’t anyone left who cares to remember him and talk about him anymore. Who cares to. That’s the key word. There’s nobody who cares to remember my old man. Not even me, his son. So, he’s dead dead.” Milton paused and waited for a response from Joannie, but there was none. Maybe she wasn’t hearing him either, he thought. Maybe he was just blowing air. Maybe he was dead dead, too, with nobody caring to listen.
“Well, I didn’t call you up to talk about that.” Milt finished up. “I called because I had a bad dream, and I just wanted to tell somebody. Now I’ll let you get back to watching the Today Show. Bye-bye.” Milton ended abruptly and put down the phone without giving Joannie time to say a farewell. He was feeling muddled. For a few minutes, he rocked his wheelchair back and forth just feeling and not thinking. Then searched those feelings, like going through pockets to see what might be enclosed deep within. Feeling, memory, thought – feeling, memory, thought.
Milton knew Jerry would be waiting at their usual table in the dining room. He knew he would be worried by now, too, because they had an agreement to always meet at the same time. This was because when someone didn’t show up, the staff wouldn’t tell you anything when you asked, so good friends never knew if one had passed in the night until late in the day. He didn’t want to worry Jerry, so he headed down to the dining room without bothering to wash up or comb his hair like he always did.
“What’s wrong with you?” Jerry asked Milton in one of his rare attempts to communicate. “Not feeling well?"
“Nothing,” Milton motioned with his hands. He screwed up his face. “Why?”
“You look bad. Worried,” Jerry said. Milton pulled out the pad and paper from his tote and wrote, “I had a bad dream last night.”
“So it goes when you get old,” Jerry nodded. Milton put the writing pad on the table and wheeled over to the self-service counter to grab his breakfast.
Milton and Jerry’s usual activity while at breakfast was to take a head count. Like anywhere else, people at the home had a habit of sitting in the same place every day. It wasn’t hard to see who was up and about and who was ill or maybe not in this world anymore. When Milton got back to the table, Jerry gave him the report. “Tim Miller’s not here,” Jerry said. “Shirley Kowlowski neither.” Milton nodded, not bothering to glance around the room himself. “Heard they took her to the hospital yesterday.”
“Jerry,” Milton opened the paper napkin and tucked it under his chin. “I’ve been thinking about my old man a lot lately.” He looked at Jerry, who was staring back as if he were trying to hear with his eyes. Milton played with the pad and pencil, wondering if he wanted to commit what he was saying to paper. Thinking where it would start and how it could end and wondering why since nothing could be done about anything now anyway, he decided not to. “It’s like I can’t get rid of him. He’s haunting me.”
Milton picked up the fork and played with the scrambled eggs, then stabbed a piece of melon and moved it slowly to his lips. The juice filled his otherwise dry mouth with its cool sweetness. He rolled his tongue around it.
It was nearly nine thirty, the end of breakfast time. Milt pushed his plate to the middle of the table and set the coffee cup on top. Putting his elbows up, he stared at his hands, the blue veins raised above loose ivory skin, the bony fingers woven together. He looked up into Jerry’s mule face, into his grey, dimming eyes, and leaning forward he whispered, “You know, Jerry, my old man killed my baby brother, Charlie.” He paused, looking down at the table, thinking about the words he just said and matching them to an ancient memory. He looked back at Jerry. Jerry nodded letting him know he should go on.
Milton gazed passed Jerry as he spoke, “I must have been five because Charlie was only two. I was chasing Charlie. I suppose he just learned to run. I was playing monster. Jumping out from behind the chair. Making him scream and giggle.” Milt’s tears blurred the room. He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Then crash!” Milt waved his hand across the table, just missing the plate in the middle. “He knocked over the brass ashtray stand just as the old man came in. The glass tray broke in two. Cigarette butts flew onto the carpet. The air stunk from ashes.”
Milton paused and looked down at the table. The pattern in the wood moved in and out, like his breath. His mind went back to the dark underwater sadness and stayed there for a long time, bobbing up and down within a memory.
“Dad grabbed Charlie by one arm, up by the shoulder.” Milt lifted his hand, showing the grip. “Lifted him off the floor. Shook him hard.” He moved his hand fiercely back and forth. “Screaming in his little face. ‘God-damned kids.’ Charlie’s little head wobbled like a rabbit gripped by a fox.”
Milton was sobbing now, trying to catch breath between the heaving. He grabbed the napkin and covered his face, holding it with the palms of both hands.
Finding calm in the darkness, he wiped his eyes, looked at Jerry whose face was kind, and went on, his voice quivering, “I was hiding behind the chair, scared I’d be next.” Milton cradled his forehead in his hands. “Ma came and grabbed Charlie away.” He took a deep breath and let it slowly out, holding back a sob.
“Charlie didn’t eat that night. He threw up and fell asleep before supper.” Milton felt Jerry reach his long arms over the table and touch his forearm. He moved his hands to the table top but couldn’t lift his face to look at his friend.
“Charlie never woke up the next day, Jerry.” Milton turned his face downward. Tears made tiny pools on the wood. “Poor baby Charlie.”