With the exception of song lyrics (see “Empire State” and “Surrealistic Pillow“), my storytelling has mostly been non-fiction. My forthcoming serialized ebook My Blood will be the first fictional foray. But for years, I also considered writing short stories. “The Old Man” is draft version of one of them, for an anthology with tentative title Unhappy Endings. I can’t say that I will ever complete the concept.
The opening sentences are real life. Once, while standing in a pharmacy line, I heard an elderly gentlemen spat those snarky sentiments at the clerk. None of the rest of the story is based on any living person in my life or experience with anyone whom I know. Some of the cat description comes from our lost Maine Coon Kuma. Any resemblance to reality stops with the opening and the feline.
Something else: I am not an angry or resentful person, so writing about someone who exhibits such emotions is unfamiliar territory to me, which is one reason for undertaking the storytelling exercise. They say you should write about what’s familiar; my attempt is the opposite. I wrote the draft story a few days after San Diego Comic-Con ended in July 2013.
The Old Man
The old man squinted in response to the druggist’s question. “I married her for better or worse. I had the better, now all I’ve got is the worse”. Ha! She surely didn’t expect that, the geezer mused silently. He clenched his fist around the bag and turned for the door. Slowly, slowly, slowly. Goddam cane, useless legs, he thought. But a wry smile turned his perpetual grimace upward. Today, he would finish the bitch.
Behind the counter, Mercy Lane Williams stood sullen, infected by the venom in the old man’s voice. The tone reminded of her mother, who used resentment to carve souls into bite-size morsels she popped like donut balls. There was nothing quite like watching Mother’s delight as she towered over victims. The woman was quick with tongue, which lashed spiked words few people could answer. She had a smart mouth, that one, and Mercy hated it.
Guilt rushed over the pharmacist, a tsunami of emotion that immobilized the 27 year-old. She stood silent, unblinking, unable to catch a breath for fear of drowning. Her last conversation with Mother was victorious, as the daughter for the first time cut deep wounds with her words; some repast for the scars she long bore.
The women argued about college costs. Mercy wanted to attend university, then go on to a school with excellent pharmaceutical program. But Mother refused to co-sign the loan documents. Later that day, she died, leaving Mercy $250,000 in life insurance. The younger woman regretted—no, she carried grave guilt about—the tone of their last conversation and that she used the money for educational expenses. A decade later, the old man released her shame. Anew.
Out on the street, he shuffled down the sidewalk, dragging his loafers forward along the pavement with each step. The manner of maneuvering made the old man an unpopular mail-order customer. He heavily scuffed shoes’ toe areas such that he needed new pairs every few months. But he often misjudged color and size presented in the catalogs, leading to exchange or refund. During the course of any month, he had five different pairs in some state of transit, something he hid from his wife.
Oh that woman! Once, other men gave jealous glances when he walked with her. Mary Elaine Christensen (“Ellie”) was a waif—small boned, fair-skinned and one-and-a-half meters tall only because of her bushy brunette mop. But her breasts! Melons. Over-sized for her frame such no man could ignore them.
His mother often told him: “Selfishness imprisons you”, which he adopted as kind of a life motto. But not one he often adjoined. He was selfish for sex and the elation other men lusted for his wife, as they should.
Sigh, in her forties beauty fast faded, as she fattened from excess eating and wrinkled from too many days on the beach. The badgering he long tolerated for other charms increased intensity; she delivered more of it, and his sensitivity grew as her benefits receded.
By age 50, he loathed most time spent with her except in the sack—in the dark, where imagination restored some of what nature stole. Then she lost interest in sex. Zero Day, he called it, when she refused him; he hadn’t touched her since. Sixteen long years ago.
Recently, poor health so consumed her, as diabetes raged, that he looked at each day as her last. But she wheezed on to another and another, relentlessly resisting Death’s call. “You’re older. You should go first”, she accused. But he was the healthier one, and she resented it. Ellie filled her time with words, which she sharpened to cut him quick.
The old man stumbled as he shuffled toe over uneven payment. The bag slipped from his grasp as he reached out his hand for the fall. But the cane struck sidewalk and pushed him upward. Luckily, he leaned over just enough, as the Toyota Prius, airborne and twisting, rushed by.
For more than 15 years, Jack Wayne Wilson defied complaints about his driving habits. The 47 year-old janitor learned on a stick-shift and refused to use one foot, for gas and brake pedals, when later driving an automatic. Two-footed operation cost him this day. A shopping cart rolled into the street, and in the panic to stop, Wilson slammed both pedals but his left foot slid off the brake. The car accelerated and careened up and over parked vehicles, flying down the sidewalk. His wife often warned about two-footed driving: “One day you’ll kill yourself”. He did, and three others.
Static electricity lifted the old man’s fine hair upward as the Prius passed overhead. The clang of metal booming behind sent him to his knees. Prostrate, as if in prayer. The old man lifted eyes upward and scowled, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for keeping this fart eater alive just one more day”.
Spittle rolled over his lips, and he shuttered. No hell could be worse than living. God condemned him not to the fire but living death. Each day another breathing, shuffling, subsisting, and listening to his wife’s taunts. He prayed for alzheimer’s—if not to silence her then to let him forget, and remember the few good days decades past.
Suddenly adrenaline flushed the old man, but not in response to the flying car. He peered on the pharmacy bag lying on the sidewalk, panicked that the glass vial of insulin had broken. Not today! He had planned the overdose for weeks.
They married when he was 33 and she 16. Ellie breathed fire even then, but he loved her searing tongue—the way she cocked her head, half closed one eye and pelted words like rocks. She mixed wit and sarcasm with condescending argument few people could meet. He loved to watch her work, until the days came when she worked on him. By her late twenties, contempt fouled love. Oh, she adored him but couldn’t stand how he was. Ellie wanted to shape him into something else, an effort earnest as the gap in age widened. She hungered to play, to party, like other young women, while he settled into middle-age.
She despised what he wouldn’t give, but still loved him and never once cheated. Her sexual flame burned only for him, until it simply extinguished. Likewise, the old man was no philanderer, but he once corked the home-healthcare nurse, plugging her so well he worried Ellie would hear. But unbeknownst to him, the younger woman administered extra sedative.
Thirty-four year-old Tracy Julie Boucher got off controlling men by sex. She preyed on all ages but delighted in geezers who could still erect. The old man was a coveted conquest once she learned he’d bedded no other woman.
Tracy despised “Helly” and wanted to take something special from her—a husband’s fidelity kept for more than 50 years! He was so easy to bed, Tracy felt bad for his sexual draught. But she bore no guilt, no remorse for Helly, if anything contempt at her withholding sex for so long.
A week later, while cleaning the older woman’s room, Tracy leaned over and whispered, “I fucked your husband!” She then played five minutes of the act recorded on an iPhone. Tracy’s ego engorged with the feeling of power she finally weld over Helly; surprisingly, elation nearly equalled taking the old man to bed.
Then they came. The wretched woman with wicked tongue finally gave up tears. She cried! Delicious! The home-care nurse laughed and strolled away.
Ellie’s tongue stopped, for awhile, and the old man misread the change, presuming that his wife finally neared the end of life. But within days, failing memory whisked away Tracy’s taunt. His wife revived, and shredded his renewed self-esteem.
The old man might have endured, for want of the home-care nurse. The woman had the classic French figure—slender form; long, thin arms; tight sloping shoulders; and “tiny tits”. He would have taken Tracy again, but she confessed to Helly and never returned; unrelated, fired for whistling blowing. The nurse had filed a complaint about patient abuses—one resulting in death—at the in-patient facility.
Despair consumed the old man. Ellie was angrier, meaner than ever. Tracy was gone. He experienced her sexplotation as triumph, payment for burdens born. Joy rushed over the crusted, cracked riverbed of his soul. But the nurse’s absence left less behind. Despair drove decision. If Death couldn’t take his wife, the old man would hand her over.
But he needed the insulin! On hands and knees, he reached out and snatched the bag fiercely, feeling for liquid from a broken vial. There was none! Just then, bystanders rushed to lift him, asking if the Prius had knocked him down. “Are you okay there, Bud?” one asked. “Let me call an ambulance”. The old man grabbed the helper’s wrist with surprising speed and strength. He shook his head and started shuffling down the street.
Inside the pharmacy, Mercy saw that two prescriptions waited for the old man, who took just one. They were practically neighbors! Just three blocks separated their flats, the store’s computer revealed. She decided to deliver the abandoned meds on her way home. Her shift ended in 15 minutes, coincidentally, during which time, a city bus ferried him to his residence.
The old man balanced his weight on the cane, contemplating a new obstacle. He and Ellie lived in the third-and-fourth-floor flat of a row house. He had to traverse stairs outside but could use an elevator within. But not today. He stared at the “Wet Paint” sign and tape and wondered: What the fuck do I do now? The other entrance, round back, opened from the alley. But the landlord had boarded up the lobby entrance for renovations. The old man could avoid stairs outside, but three flights awaited within.
He trembled in frustration. Anger.
He stood about 1.7 meters, not a tall man, but stocky, muscular, his whole life, what women called “well-built”. He worked on the docks his entire career, three decades as longshoreman and another 27 as a manager. The men nicknamed him “The Elder” in his later years. He left the docks at age 77, surprisingly still strong and fit. Mandatory retirement be damned.
Working removed him from ailing Ellie, who wasn’t yet confined to bed. She gave little he wanted, and more he didn’t. But then her left foot blackened, and the hospital amputated the thing. He retired not because of age; he could have worked a few more years yet. But he still had his mates and the pub, as repast. There, companions replenished his soul and sense of self-worth.
The older gents adopted country hit “When Your Body Betrays You” as an anthem. They’d raise a pint and fill the room with song:
You were the man down the line all the other men trusted
With tin can and vine you fixed anything they busted
Your arms like rocks could lift the load of three or four fellas
You could charm the locks off Mrs. Rockefeller.
Now it’s a crime to kiss you or even to miss you
Until your body fails you
When your body fails you
The pub couldn’t last as a refuge. Most of the old man’s peers had died off, moved away, or been committed to a Home within 24 months. Younger longshoremen considered him a novelty, but as they worked, and he didn’t, and talked shop, they shared little in common with him. Demeanor destroyed welcome more, as raging complaints fouled his mouth. The dock workers, who hustled women they loved or lusted, quickly tired hearing about Ellie and the old man’s past accomplishments.
Other men might have taken to booze, but not the old man. He was a social drinker. Sure, he could put back the pints, but with friends. He rarely drank alone. So he resigned to self-imposed prohibition, lifted three times a year for holidays, when he drank with the lads, who tolerated him more, for coming around less.
The old man’s shuffling step started about three years after he retired and not long after he gave up the pub. The burden of caring for Ellie and the weight of her words crushed optimism. He approached each dreary day like a man life-imprisoned—no, less than one! Sometimes he dreamed of doing something, anything, that would force the coppers to lock him up, to free him behind bars.
He regarded this stage of his life as penance, for what he couldn’t guess. If not his transgression, then another’s. Long ago, he memorized part of a poem his aunt cherished:
Still the soul with white lilies
Madonna comes whenever you call
Mother of life, her virgin color
Reaches out to those who fall
In her womb there is forgiveness
Sin the blood will wash away
Burden she bears is all sorrow
Fall before her and pray
But his prayers were curses. He talked to Jesus often, demanding relief and expecting none. “Gimme the cross and take my wife, if you want to know suffering. I’ve paid someone’s sins!” Burdened, the old man hunched over and shuffled everywhere. But the problem was in his head, not his limbs. He should have known, should have guessed. The liaison with the home-care nurse restored his confidence, sense of manhood for a couple of days, when he walked without cane or shuffling.
When he couldn’t see past pessimism, the shuffle resumed, and he returned to ordering several pairs of shoes at once. Catalog shopping and returns lifted loneliness. When he called to place orders, or reject them, women usually answered. Their friendly voices soothed his heartaches, so he used every opportunity to make mistakes. Wrong color. Wrong size. “I don’t like the styling”. Advanced age excused the exchanges. The retailers were tolerant, accepting.
That’s how he came to plan the overdose, realization that no one would prosecute an 86 year-old man for administering too much medicine, particularly when daily home-care care stopped. For weeks he waited for the agency to send someone to replace Tracy, but no one came.
Her accusation forced the hospice-and-home-healthcare facility to close, at least temporarily, and his wife’s case disappeared in the chaos that followed. Tracy contributed, by purposely deleting the home-care records; she couldn’t have the old man or his bitch discussing the seduction. Altruism was the least of her whistle-blowing motivations, too. While the patient abuses were egregious and sure to eventually be discovered, Tracy was responsible for the death, accidentally, and used the complaint to shift the blame.
Without the home-care visits, the old man struggled to care for his wife. Any solicitor would see. Surely there would be no criminal charges made. He viewed the act as mercy killing. Ellie’s life had no real quality, joy from administering word-whippings the only vitality she received. One needle could end both their miseries.
The old man would miss his wife. While he hated how she treated him, he still loved her. He didn’t hate the woman, just her behavior, which origin he understood. Besides, the blackness consumed her other foot now. Rot would kill her if he didn’t.
Outside the row house, the old man shuffled down the side alley just as the painter skipped down the front steps and removed the sign and tape. The lady in the top loft had obliged the workman, with sex and a smoke. If not for a third go, fresh paint, and nothing more, would have greeted the old man.
Round back, he considered the three flights of stairs and another inside the flat. He worried about the insulin, which he clutched like treasure. To climb, he would need the cane in one hand and use the other for the rail. Sharing with either risked dropping the bag. In desperate consideration, he failed to see the obvious option: Remove the small vial from the sack and place in a pocket, and there were five good ones between pants and jacket.
The old man grabbed the railing with his left hand and held the cane and bag in the other. He pulled on the railing then pushed up with the cane, lifting his right leg, then the left. From first step to first landing, five minutes passed. Halfway up the second flight, he startled and slipped as two kids, both second-graders, bolted up the stairs, nearly knocking him over.
Mrs. Honeycutt baked oatmeal cookies on Wednesday afternoons. Goddam. More little brats would follow.
In the confusion, he dropped the bag—of course! It bounced down three steps, and the vial rolled out to the edge. No! He willed it to stop from careening off and falling to sure destruction. Just then, more kids bounded up the stairwell, and one was actually smart enough to stop. The youngster grabbed the vial and called to another youth to help the old man. “Which floor you going to, Mister?”
The youngsters left him outside the apartment, leaning heavily against a wall, clutching the vial. He stood there for another five minutes, unable to open his hand. Finally, he looked. The fall cracked the glass, which held together. Relief lightened his mood and willpower. The old man opened the door into the apartment, and, feeling more confident and sure-footed, he immediately started walking.
A stuffed cat greeted the old man as he shuffled up the staircase to the bedroom. He stopped to kiss and pat the head, which was his custom. “Good luck, it is”, he said.
At the healthcare service’s suggestion, the old man adopted a cat from the local animal shelter. “It will calm Ellie”, the administrator insisted. “We find cats can comfort people who are like your wife’s situation”. He chose a fluffy Maine Coon—mixed black, grey and white tiger stripes and bushy tail. “Ronnie” was big, weighing nearly 9 kilos, but Gentle Ben. He adapted to their flat quickly but demanded to be let out. The old man borrowed a saw from a former dock mate and fashioned a pet door so that Ronnie could come and go freely.
Ellie loved the cat, which really did dull her edge. Secretly, he adored the Coon, too, but kept the pleasure to himself. Ellie knew. Late night, in the dimly-light kitchen, the old man sat on a stool and threw bits of tuna in the air, which Ronnie grabbed with great bites. Some he caught with his paws, which delighted the geezer. The couple had no children, and the cat was the only living thing they ever shared.
Ronnie stayed with them for eight years. One day he came home distressed, moping, eventually listless, then dead. The old man wondered what could have happened to his boy, so strong, so reliable, so stout. He never knew.
Tracy the home-care nursed poisoned the Maine Coon months before bedding down the old man. She saw how much Ellie loved the cat and so despised him. The killing was meant to hurt the old woman, but she kept tears away from the nurse, whose disappointment raged in silence.
The couple comforted one another, for a loss they shared, and the old man wondered if their lives would have been different had there been children. For weeks, Ellie reached out to hold his hand, and she eased off bitter criticism and complaint. But as sorrow subsided, old habits renewed. With Ronnie around, she was more like a rattler, giving warning before the strike. Afterwards, the old man could no longer anticipate her bites, which venom was as poisonous as the months following her amputation. She blamed him for everything.
The old man couldn’t let Ronnie go. The grandson of a dock mate was a taxidermist, whom he asked to stuff the cat. The staircase to the second floor of the flat turned 180 degrees off a landing, upon which there was a small shelf the old man reckoned children could sit. There he made a shrine to Ronnie, stuffed and lifelike, surrounded by his favorite toys—a feather wand, cloth ball and stuffed cow sent by the shelter. Ronnie loved to grasp the cow with his front paws and kick with his back legs, while rolling around the floor.
As the old man reached the top of the stairs inside, Mercy stepped up to those freshly painted outside. She looked at the prescription label to check the address. Ah, third-floor flat. The druggist expected the front door to be locked, but Mrs. Honeycutt’s cookie crew jimmied it.
Mercy loved the architecture of these old row houses. This one had four residences, in a property converted to apartments perhaps 50 years past. Paint chipped from the entrance walls, but the molding and fine detailing was exquisite.
As she climbed up the stairwell, the old man reached his wife’s bedside and picked up a needle. He needed to act fast. Suddenly, he nervously chuckled, thinking of himself as a grade schooler going to the ocean. He could never just jump in the water, and the longer he waited the harder the task. Hesitation surely meant failure, if he didn’t stick Ellie quick.
The pharmacist was surprised to find the apartment door ajar. She rapped, and walked in. “Hullo! Mr. Usher! Are you here, sir?”
Her face unconsciously wrinkled as her nostrils pulled back. Stench fouled the air, spoiled food and feces the most pungent odors. What happened here? Where is the home-healthcare? She started up the stairs, stopping briefly to gawk at the cat but more severely at the barren walls. Cleaner areas revealed the outlines where picture frames once hung.
Inside the bedroom, Ellie met her husband’s gaze; she knew! Nodded agreement. Her acquiescence pierced him, and his impaled solar plexus burned. The old man stumbled back and nearly dropped needle and vial, which he clutched in each hand. She knew!
Ellie had nothing much to live for. She rarely left the bed. Ronnie died. Her husband betrayed her. For years she beat him, shredded his manhood, with sharp, serrated words. She inflicted hurt intended to drive him away but hoping he would stay. She wasn’t worthy of his love. Look at what she had become, even being so much younger. Shame consumed her—for the state of health, what she couldn’t give her man and how she hurt him just to see if he really loved her. Then he slept with the nurse. For awhile the memory of Tracy’s torment left her. But lying here, watching him feebly tend to her, Ellie remembered.
Mercy creaked the door and entered the room and hardened her will not to run. The stench overwhelmed the druggist, and such she covered her mouth. Clearly, home-healthcare stopped sometime ago. In the corner, soiled adult diapers spilled out of a garden-size trash bag. Mr. Usher obviously couldn’t manage bedpans, choosing the disposables instead.
He stood before her, alongside his wife, holding the insulin vial and needle. Mercy immediately understood. Mr. Usher planned not to administer treatment but death. He stood trembling, a man in a trance. Taking four big strides, the druggist reached the old man and placed her hands over his. No.
She looked down on Mrs. Usher and smiled. The woman’s aged face looked immediately familiar, like how Mercy imagined Mother had she lived as long. The young woman’s attention turned to a stack of photos, which she assumed once filled the staircase walls.
Mercy lifted one frame from the pile. How unexpected. Young Mr. Usher was such a handsome man, wide head tapering to cheeks punctuated by clefts. His upper lip puffed below large, commanding nostrils and green eyes speckled yellow.
The photo beneath stilled her breath. Mother! How could the Ushers have a likeness of Mother? She grabbed another frame, larger with seven photos, all of Mother, Mr. Usher or both. Mercy started gasping for air—to hyperventilate. A shroud fell over her vision, and the world tilted sideways. She couldn’t make sense of the mystery. Then…
The Secret! The Secret! For years she heard relatives whisper about The Secret. But no one would reveal it to her. This woman could be her mother. Mercy had heard of doppelgangers, but the resemblance was too close. Mother had a twin.
Suddenly a new tsunami rushed through Mercy—compassion for Mr. Usher and understanding. She stilled his shaking hands and smiled. Then she took the syringe and filled it with liquid.
Postscript: The story written isn’t the one conceived. I planned to write something lighter, the old man’s travails trying to get home without breaking the insulin vial, so he could murder his wife—six incidents, starting with the flying Prius. But that’s not the story that poured from me.
Please feel free to share “The One Man”, but because it is a work in progress All Rights Reserved until completed. I will apply Creative Commons non-commercial license to the final draft.
Photo Credit: Greta Ceresini