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The Garbage ManAt current events one day, a very nice gentleman happened to tell me that he found a credit card and he was on his way to return it to the bank. I judged him to be 75—younger than I—
everyone is younger than I am. I said, “I have an errand at that bank this morning. Would you mind if I tag along with you?” In all of his graciousness what he didn’t know was that he was going to come in very handy. I needed a man with me to help give me the courage for the battle that I might be facing there. They had already put me through the grinder.
For months I had been trying to get them to change the address on an E Bond that I bought for a great-grandson. The address had him living with me, his great-grandmother in San Diego,
when he was really a British subject and lived in London. “He doesn’t live in the United States,” I kept telling the bank. To them, the address on the E Bond made no difference. To me, it made all the difference in the world because I wanted his address to be correct. And I didn’t see any reason
why it couldn’t be done. This stranger was going to help me whether he knew it or not by just standing there and showing them that I had a man with me. Even though my husband has been dead for 20 years -- he has more power than I have alive.
My strategy worked. The moment she saw a man at my side, her attitude changed. She was going to take care of this no matter how long it took. She acted like a different person. This man saying to us, “She will take good care of you, you’ll see,” giving her a loving smile, as if he were tall, dark and handsome; flashingly short and breathing -- and could be full of vim and vigor if given the chance to see the right address on this bond, handing it to her.
“Absolutely, sir. I’ll call the Federal Reserve and have this straightened out right away.” Giving me that sour look, “I’ve been here ten years. I know what I'm doing,” she said.
“I’m in the U.S. ninety-five years and I know what I’m doing, too!”
He made sure the woman knew how great he was—he’d known Eisenhower and all the Presidents, that is, when they marched in parades. While we sat and waited, she was on the phone
making arrangements for this bond to be canceled and I got my credit. Now that’s settled.
On the way home, he had other errands to do, stopping behind supermarkets at rotting odors that arouse my curiosity. “For what?” I asked.
“People could live like kings on what they throw out.”
“Wait for me in the car,” he said. “I will be right back.” He returned with his arms full, packages of cookies, bags of groceries, and some vegetables. He said, “There’s enough here for you too, Laura.” For a week, I thought. He threw it all in back of the car. “We’ll sort it out later,” he said.
Then he drove behind another supermarket. A market worker was shoveling piles of discarded groceries into a big dumpster. “He’ll pick out some good stuff for us,” my friend said.
“Sorry it took so long—lucky it’s not raining,” throwing his king’s supply to the back seat.
“Such waste,” climbing into the driver’s seat and we’re on to the next garbage adventure.
“No garbage when I was a kid,” I said. “We ate it all.” Another supermarket. Another gold mine. Another man shoveling food into a high bin.
“Hey!” He’s hiding behind me now. “When he sees you, we’ll get the best of everything.”
Soon he is unloading the bags in my driveway -- my old age pastime, the fun and games of what is left of me -- to go garbage collecting behind supermarkets. When we drive up to my door,
he’s about to bring in enough food to fill my kitchen. “I just can’t use any of that food,” I said. “I have done so much shopping this week. I just don’t need anything. I thank you just the same.”
“You had my ride -- now take my garbage.”
“No,” I said, “my refrigerator is stuffed to the top, thank God, and I thank you for standing by.”
“Food always the problem for you old people,” my new friend said, already carrying in bags of food. “Where should I put this?”
“On the floor….”
At six o’clock he is ringing my bell – “We’re going to have a sushi party,” he said, already unwrapping a garbage bag on my table.
“I’ve already had my dinner.” He enjoyed his sushi party alone. I sat watching a program on TV, a man teaching us how to laugh like Santa Claus, “Ho-ho-ho,” to release your muscles around your diaphragm. He had once taken laughing lessons.
A week later, a woman calls. “We’re the Women’s Group for the Blind. And we’re going to the Nut and Date Farm and we would love to have you join us. There’s a volunteer in your
neighborhood. He’s worked for us for years. He’ll call you.”
“Hello? Laura, I’m Leonard. Just call me Lenny for short.”
While we are driving, Lenny points out all the scenery. Not being totally blind, I see the trees flying by. The sky is bluer than ever. The clouds are pinkish purple or my eyes are deceiving me. I take in this happiness, grateful for my volunteer driver.
When we get to the farm, children are screaming, laughing around the zoo. “I want that goat for a pet. I want that goat.” And throwing popcorn around the chicken coop.
This scene brought my childhood back to me suddenly. My Uncle Sam’s farm, a coop of chickens in his backyard where my mother left me. Uncle Sam and his wife Esther were very silent people. I needed the chickens for friends. I began to teach them how to fight for their weeds. Played house in the tool shed, a place where Uncle Sam reconstructed sewing machines paid for with a good meal. Lenny, I suppose, couldn’t understand my fascination for those chickens.
“It was nice of you to take me, Lenny. This is fun.”
“Don’t mention it,” he said, “it’s something I always do.”
In the Nut and Date shop, that big pumpkin I bought filled half my shopping bag; the rest nuts, dates and herbal teas. Much of the time was spent admiring the decorated Christmas trees. The sun was going down.
Driving home, Lenny was very quiet. “I really appreciate this, Lenny. It was a great day.”
“Better than playing Michigan rummy two cents a card,” he said, “or listening to my sister give me hell. She tells me I should be ashamed of myself, taking out women, buying them challahs, spending money on gas, all the while my wife is in a nursing home.”
A day later I find a challah at my screen door. I call him. “I’m walking over and I’m going to pay you for this. Otherwise I can’t accept it.”
“Oh, come on in a minute,” he said, as I paid him. “Come on, we’ll have a drink. Coke or ginger ale?”
We sat at his table chatting, drinking. Suddenly he stood up and with drink in hand, bending over me, he said angrily, “Do you think that I would go to bed with an old woman like you?” I sat back, as though he had struck me and I didn’t want him to strike me again. Me, old? I’m only in my eighties. Does that mean I’m a nobody, as he will be in another few years? Is that what he was afraid of? Old age? For all of his crudeness, I could wipe the floor up with him.
“You got me mixed up with six other blind women that you volunteer for!” I said. I was so hurt.
Now he turned sweet, “Laura, please don’t go yet. Wait. I’ll put on my shoes. It's getting dark.
I don’t want you going home alone in the dark.”
I must have smiled too soon at this Lenny in gratitude for giving me that day.
He walked me out, blabbering the whole way. I hardly looked at him. I hardly heard what hesaid. Walking up the pathway, he suddenly vanished.
Lenny, friend of the blind, called me again: “We are going to Old Town next Saturday. What time should I pick you up?”
“You mean you’re not afraid of me?” slamming the receiver.
Why didn’t I really tell him off? My real feelings from down deep. I would hold up a mirror to show a frightened old man, afraid of dying.
I am at the Friendship Club enjoying Mexican chicken outdoors with the rest of them. What is going by me? A tray filled with hot coffee overturns and spills over my arm. As if I don’t have
enough hurt, I have to have this. What happened?
Everybody is jumping up, running for ice. “Don’t
worry, sweetheart,” I’m saying to this schlimazel with the hot coffee. “It’s okay. I’m fine.” My arm burning.
Soon they were wrapping it up in ice. I was afraid that he might leave and go volunteer some place else. So apologetic, so scared. But go near him and a pail of paint can spill over right on your head from a high ladder. “Where are my dark glasses, my sweater?” I say to an old woman already in my seat. She threw my things over to the side and sat down. I wanted to say, there are a lot of empty seats here. I only got up for a minute.
It’s best not to have any negative thoughts as I learned in the
Rabbi’s Torah study group and to “be careful of what you say.”
The man across my table must be a mind reader, he interrupts my thoughts, “That’s where I’m going -- to a nursing home,” he said. “Look me up, Laura, when you get there.”
I always like hearing about nursing homes from far away.
The Bridge Teacher
A widow must keep on the go and so I have taken to learning bridge over at a community center, down in the basement of a church. The only problem is that the bridge teacher always brings
his wife who seems sickly and frail. I suspect that she has Alzheimers. But he insists that she be the fourth. She stares at each card, plays the wrong one, and who deals next is never-ending. Max, the teacher, pretends she is the greatest of all players. He and the other man, a couple of jerks, keep
mixing us two women up. I am Laura, but they call me Clara, vice-versa. So self-centered. Intelligent, maybe, only on one subject -- sex. Then back to their egos. But we need them to balance the table and to drive me crazy.
Anyway, we strangers meet regularly for this bridge game. The idea of bridge is really nice, if not for those two jerks. With every passing moment of the game, they tell stories and put themselves into spasms of laughter. Max, the teacher, all the while shuffles the cards, keeps his wife straightened
out so she doesn’t topple over, or repeat, “And where are the Cascades?” and “Who was divorced?”
Their whole drive was counting points correctly, that is, if those jerks knew how to count.
Giving impressions of great romances and how young women call them night and day. They have forgotten that their chromosomes have taken them from gorilla to monkey to where they are now in a foursome in a basement bridge room.
“Live it up, baby,” says one of them, throwing a card. “No old age for me. No rhumbas here. I’ll learn how to rhumba-shumba when I’m old.” Dropping a handful to the disgust of our teacher.
“A chinning bar would do the trick,” said the other jerk. And, as if he already had one with him, he stood up to show us how chinning works, finally stopping when Max crossly said, “Sit
down. You’re rocking the boat.”
Then a lot of post-mortem of how the hand should have been played out. “No-trump” not in their vocabulary.
Clara suddenly woke up and began to deal the hand by licking her fingers so carefully on each card that the jerks had time to analyze life and find out if it was sex and marriage or sex and living together when following youth. The sun is born in the morning for everyone, they agreed, and that includes widowers who should be having a ball but are not.
“Don’t understand it? Then take some English or History. Didn’t you ever study the narrowness of the Nile Valley at the singles? They give you plenty of geographical stuff.” Spoken with the speed of a train, and all the while some of my
cells are dying. I sit back with Clara and the teacher and wait.
“What was it that Thoreau said?” asked Clara. “Oh -- ‘If you don’t like your husband, then live alone?’ Oh. ‘I love to live alone?’ ‘I will breathe after my own fashion.’ He had the ideas.”
The game lags.
“So she threw her clothes to the floor, hangers and all, and says, ‘That’s terrible! That’s really terrible! What am I, a prostitute or something? Why? Do you want money asking me if I want money?’ Me? I don’t want nothing. But it is nice to have a traveling companion, especially if she pays for half.”
“On somebody else’s behind,” said Max, “it is good to slap.”
“Well,” I said, not to be an outsider, “My mother used to say that too much of anything is not healthy.”
“We’re talking about motel rooms,” said the wisest of the two, “and not cemeteries.”
“The decent men, either they died or somebody’s got them cornered,” said Clara. Not as sick as I thought.
To match it, I said, “So stuck on themselves. Their minds are closed and from a hundred years ago.”
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“They know it all,” answered Clara. “Some say you never get over losing a husband.”
“But I’m still here,” laughed the bridge teacher, patting her cards gently as to say ‘get going, give a card.’ “Not that one, for God sakes.” Pulling a card from the middle and throwing it out for a jerk to follow. But he is too busy gathering thoughts.
“Alone. No one ever dies alone.” Looking upward.
“And you don’t really know how many of us there are. All killed out in the Second World War.” One jerk or the other.
“And lucky me. I was born too soon and got smart too late or I’d leave her standing in pink or yellow or green nightgown and leave her right there. ‘What took you so long to show up?’ she says. Why? Am I married to her? I picked her out of the parade at the seniors center. She looked most prosperous, by her heels. You can always tell money by their heels. ‘Leaving me here all alone. Going out to look for a mistress when you got a mistress? And from the Bahamas yet. Was she
topless? And she with a jug on her head with a split skirt.’ ”
Max, looking around the table. “Who deals?”
“Okay, I’ll deal. No, it’s her deal. Clara. You deal.”
Max hands Clara the deck. Changes his mind. He deals. One of the jerks picks up his hand. Puts it down. “So I did go out for an hour, so what? And there is this gal in the parking lot. ‘You
single?’ She says to me right away. ‘You live around here? Did you ever have a dark girl?’ ‘Oh fiddle,’ I said, ‘I’m too old for you.’ But then I see she has an almost new car, a new hairstyle. ‘Maybe you ain’t as old as you think you are,’ she says, moving closer to me up to the car door. But a guy has to be crazy taking some gal soliciting you in the parking lot, ready to follow you into the store. But she was intelligent, from the papers in her car where she bought books, and only looking for a little fun. I never pay for it -- no way. So I promised to call her.”
The other jerk: “Like the tom cat that died and went to heaven and there’s a gorgeous Persian cat, but he’d rather take his meals on wheels. Ha ha ha ha.”
“Guess a man does like to try a younger woman once in awhile. An older woman, she’s got to come up with the money and pay her half or I put a pillow over her face.”
“But she’s got a right to know about this beforehand,” I said, trying to count points to myself. “You can’t scare her out of her wits.”
“If really needed,” said jerk number one, “there are operations men can get but they cost like the devil. Very frustrating if you’re trying suddenly and can’t do it and then have to give her up. Maybe the woman gets discouraged too and throws him away. They aren’t such angels, you know.”
“Darn right, darn right. I’ve heard them talk. Darn right, you’re right. But they don’t realize how important we are. And furthermore, at what age do you think women become senior citizens?”
“At twenty-six,” said the wiser of the two. “I took a course and found that out pretty quick. Women abusing their bodies same as men. Sure, right. And a body can only take care of itself until age twenty-six, and then we’ve all got to be careful and watch what we eat and do. No smoking, drinking and no fat and very little screwing, if any.”
“What are we, dead? said jerk number one. “And that’s what I told her when I got back to the motel room and found her all spruced up in purple flimsy stuff. ‘Why your pants off?’ I asked of her. ‘What’s with you? Take the needle out of your arm and get your pants on, you nut. You know that you’re a nut? Really a nut? If you want to leave, it’s your prerogative. I can’t hold you back. I’ve got some pride, some rights too, you know -- and there will be no sexual relations here until we are
really married. I’m old-fashioned. I want a wife to come home to, to feel substantial, like a real married decent married man.’ ‘But then,’ she said, ‘that’s when I stop paying half.’”
“You’re dummy now,” said Max, my bridge teacher.
“No, her -- my wife, Clara.”
In this short story, some characters like the bridge teacher keep bugging me. They were salted away some 12, 15 years ago when I got it published in a journal of experimental literature called, “Crawl Out Your Window,” together with another short story, “The Goddess of Adam’s Dream.”
Don’t ask me what it’s about now, I don’t know. Once, I was going to put my neighbor and her girlfriend at a bridge table and let them talk, while the suffering husband of one of them was to be the Bridge Teacher. But I changed it when writing it. I turned the dialogue over to the two men who reveal themselves as God’s gift to women.
That bridge game paid me $10.00 when it was published.
I am telling my readers now that I am inserting the short story of the Bridge Teacher into my book. That’s where it will be found in I Am Still Here.
A Letter from an Old Man
May 1, 1983
Dear Laura Simon:
I have a very puzzling question to ask you.
First of all, I want to thank you for the nice card you sent regarding the Skirball Museum of the Hebrew Union College. It’s always nice to hear from one who visited. I’m ashamed to admit it, but for the love of me I just can’t seem to place you. Laura Simon of San Diego: That just doesn’t seem to ring with me.
Obviously, you know me real well, and that we have corresponded, for you have my name and address exactly correct, and even addressing me “Dear Ben Katz” I guess I might just be stupid, or haven’t heard from you for so long, …. I just am very, very puzzled, to know who you are, and I
SURE WOULD LIKE YOU TO STRAIGHTEN ME OUT.
San Diego: This answers the bell where long ago I wanted to move. The Abrahms and their family were very dear friends to me and my wife. We visited them lots of times. And they in turn visited us. Excuse me for being so dumb. But this is one of the most puzzling cards I ever received. Will you therefore be so kind as to answer me so my puzzling image will be straightened out? As to just who you are?
I won’t rest till I hear from you again – who you are, how you know me, how you got my exact name and address, and anything else you care to write me about. And for you to answer by return mail, I’m enclosing a self-addressed and stamped envelope – all you have to do is to write me
a few words so we can get acquainted, or re-acquainted. Isn’t it something? Getting to hear from one and not being able to just know who she is?
Speaking about going places and seeing things: If I had you with me, I would take you to be my guest to visit Brown’s in the Catskill Mountains the end of this month.
P.S. – I was so “taken in” when I got your card, I almost felt like calling you up to find out what I am asking you in this letter. Had I your phone number, I probably would have.
One day in looking for art supplies, going across the street to wait for the bus, I came across the Colonel. My destiny was not of my making. I had no plans for it or no hand in it. And there he was, driving out of his driveway.
“Can I give you a lift?” he said. “I’m your neighbor.”
That unexpected invitation led to lunch and that evening theater. And the next day he called: Would I like to go shopping? It was Valentine’s Day. He was ringing my bell and he had a basket of candy and cologne. Valentine’s? I hadn’t had anything like that. Not in a long time. There is nothing
supercilious about him. Or his rank. I’m thinking, what am I doing with a colonel? He had been around the world. Lived in India 17 years. But then he didn’t look like a colonel, as we see in the movies. Suave, tall, stately, important. He was just a fat old man.
Raised in the church, his father a minister. Said that his mother was Jewish, his family, whom I met later, denying it. He knew a lot about Judaism. His mother would take him aside, hidden from the father and everyone else. “You are from the Chosen People,” she said. Teaching him Jewish
lullabies. And he knew all the church hymns. He had a beautiful singing voice. That’s what I loved about him. “And God loves all his little children. Red, blue and white.” A man of the world, in the army 32 years. Great charm and loving, that is, until he let you know that he was America’s army.
And then watch out. He had a terrible temper.
He would take me to the Officer’s Club for dinner regularly. There was music and he was a wonderful dancer. Remembering that I was 75 years old, I asked him, “Colonel, what do you see in me?”
And he said, “Laura, what do you see in me? If you see anything in me, let’s get married.”
“If you marry me and live with me for one year, and I die, you will have $2500 a month for life. I want to do something for you. Why shouldn’t you marry me? You’ll have all the privileges that I have as a colonel -- a nursing home in later years and travel around the world. All that free.”
I didn’t know if this was so or not, but it all sounded like I would have a well- padded old age. But I couldn’t see myself getting married, especially to him. That childhood of mine was embedded in my body and soul, and I didn't want to settle into a bad marriage after such a good one.
He said, “So then I think you’re still married to Mannie, aren’t you?”
“I met him when I was 16 and he was 18. We grew up together, 53 years. That’s not a day.” I always remember how Mannie’s high school and college education uplifted me, adding to my limited schooling.
“Why not take advantage of the few remaining years? We’d have a wonderful companionship together.” And then laughing at something that he recalled, he said, “I once thought it was great to own an old car. And that’s about all I had when I met my wife in Japan. She was a secretary to a general and I was a lieutenant. And I met her at a dance. That night after the ball was over, she wouldn’t let me go. ‘Why don’t you stay the night?’ she said. That’s what I did. I loved the invitation.
And that’s how our relationship started and that’s how we got married.”
It took many meetings with the Colonel and many outings before I got to learn of his past marriages. One day he said, “I know I’m asking you to marry me, but I have to tell you something. I was married twice after my wife died. I lived with each woman one month and then got divorced. The first one left me a note: ‘Thanks for everything.’ She kept the diamond that I had given her, the car and the bank account. That one month cost me a lot of money. The second one just bowed out
and she was through.”
Not a good record, I thought to myself. That wasn’t saying much for him, for this upper classman colonel. Later on, I learned that he had had another marriage too. The woman bore him a son who died at birth.
“I wish I had a son,” he’d say every once in a while. No more than that.
I was wondering about myself, how I had changed. Talking to the four walls was no pleasure. I used to go all over and do everything. Now I’m afraid of my shadow and cling to an old colonel whose self assurance is only with the young women who call him. Then he tried to cover up his diabetes, his tremors. I was just one of the many on the battlefield with millions of others and he was doing his job.
One day when I fell in the street crying and screaming, people around me called an ambulance. “She broke a hip.” But it turned out to be torn muscles in my thigh. I could only stay
one night in the hospital. The Colonel called. “Don’t you worry, Laura, you’re coming right home with me. I’ll take care of you.” I slept in the twin bed next to him. “Laura, are you asleep?” taking my hand. And when I didn’t answer, he went to the kitchen to get something to eat and then to the bathroom. I heard the water in the sink. I stayed in the colonel’s palace one week, a two-bedroom apartment in an old building. When I talked about going home, he would say, “You’re not ready”
and “What’s your hurry? Stay with me, Laura.”
The pains in my thigh go down to the bottom of my foot and all the way back up to my head. I could hardly get a foot down on the floor without agonizing pain. Where was I going to go, a
nursing home? My mind turning all kinds of plans. I didn’t know what I was going to do.
One morning a young Filipino woman came to see him. I’m in that bed covered up. They’re in the kitchen and she’s saying to him, “She doesn’t have any pain in her thigh. She can walk. She’s only saying that. She’s pulling your leg. She just wants to stay here, that’s all.” And he said, in a voice loud enough to be heard several blocks, “If you don’t like it, you can get the hell out of here.” He used to be very kind to her. He had been in the Philippines in the war and knew of their suffering first hand. And he took her in like a wounded bird. Now he was rough. He was all authority all over again. It's his way and he let her know it. So many women hanging on to him. Poor guy. He had to take two of us to lunch sometimes. An Asian woman with long manicured nails. She was mad at the sight of me.
What am I doing having lunch with her and the Colonel? I’d already learned to accept his antics. Once he told me
when he took a woman to lunch, she had the chutzpa to ask him how much pension he got. He never took her to lunch again. And for the most of them, he only took them once or twice. And they were discarded.
Another woman called him, in great distress. Her former husband is stalking her. What can she do? And he comes up with bravery, "Don't worry. I'll get him."
Later I said, “What were youtalking about? There’s the police. Why doesn’t she report it?” “Oh, yeah.” He never thought of that one.
A woman came in without knocking. “You got any shelf paper?” Women were calling him, night and day. And there I was in his bedroom. He brought me trays of food. I couldn’t enjoy the television. The pains in my thigh were still excruciating. One night in calling the doctor he got a new
prescription for my pain. Drove all night all over the city to find an open pharmacy for me. It was like he was still doing his war job.
“God loves all his little children. Red, blue and white,” he sings. Adding a touch of Jewish lullaby, “Raisins, almonds and little goats. My mother sang that to me while she made me eat over the sink. I was a big slob.”
Feeling better one morning, I go along with him to a tailor. He wants his uniform made bigger. Standing before the mirror, he is still struggling to get the jacket across his belly. The tailor,
shaking his head, hopelessly, “It can’t be done. It’s no use. It’s impossible.” He hadn’t yet tried on the trousers, already understanding that he wouldn’t get it over one leg. Holding on to the jacket, he turned tearfully. He was no longer the Colonel with all the medals across his chest as in the picture he had taken with his wife. Together they looked like a prince and princess. Now he was crying. And the tailor and I both understood. He wasn’t going to let go of that uniform, not even when dead.
Some months later he's over for dinner; he is more talkative than ever. First he said the prayer, as his father, the minister, had taught him, blessing everyone he had ever known, including me. He sat there hardly able to speak.
“Why had I been so terrible to so many young men?” He cried. “Why did I hurt them and their families? Why did I do that? And my mother wanted me to be a general and I only got as far as a colonel. Any guy with drugs,” he was saying, “I threw them right out of the army. ‘Give us another chance, they begged.’ Some of them came from Mississippi. For the first
time in their lives, they had decent food, decent clothes. And they wanted to stay. They kept begging me. Not when I caught them with drugs.”
One evening, taking me for dinner to Anthony’s, parking his car, a young man came up to him and said, “Can I watch your car? I’ll be here watching your car when you come out. I’ll watch your car.” The Colonel stood straight, tall as possible, and said, “If you don’t get your ass out of here, you’ll find yourself flat on the street.” While waiting to be served, I say to him, “Colonel, when we come out, your tires will be flat.” He put his hand on mine across the table and said gently, “No,
Laura. If he thought he got a hold of an old man, he was badly mistaken. By now, he is far away from here and my tires are fine.” And it was true.
One day he comes in all enthused. “Laura, I’m going on a trip and I want you to come with me. We’ll go by Amtrak along the coast. All the way up into Canada. We’re going to have a good
I had gone for a good time on a trip once before, remembering very well. This time though by Amtrak. I love to travel. I had always wanted to see the world. I was never up the coast into Canada.
“Laura, we’re good friends. Come on. I’m not going alone. You’re coming with me.” And I went with him on that trip by Amtrak.
On the train in a spacious room, we had beds facing each other that made up into couches during the day. A shower in our bathroom, all-luxury. The countryside flying by, as waiters hovered over us in the dining room. We stop in San Francisco at the Presidio. As a former colonel, he was issued a suite. After settling in, we went to dinner. He was in an unusually good mood. I took the bedroom, he took the sitting room, the easy chair, and kicked off his shoes. I lay in that twin bed
and could see his profile. He was smiling to himself. Was he thinking of Saigon again? The follies? When his facial expression changed, he must have been in those ancient villages.
“You wouldn’t understand, Laura, If I told you,” keeping the army stories to himself. His thoughts must have changed, when suddenly he burst out in laughter. That’s how it was. We were just good friends.
In the morning, we took cabs all around San Francisco. He had been stationed there at one time and he wanted to see the old sights again.
We’re back on Amtrak. And we’re in Seattle, Washington in a first class hotel. Another suite.
“Laura, there’s the telephone. Order from room service. Anything you want.” We wined and dined.
At the Space Needle, we were getting in an elevator when two men got out and dropping a bunch of coins. They pushed the Colonel aside and said, “Step back. Step back. I just lost the contact lens from my eye. Hey, step back.” Pushing him all over. They don’t let us get into the elevator. “Hey,
you’re stepping on my contact,” one of the guys said. And they’re feeling, pushing at him. When they left, his wallet was gone. He said, “This is what I did in the army. I was watching everybody else and look what they did to me here.” He couldn’t take the insult. After reporting the incident to the
police, we taxied back to the hotel. He reports all this to the desk, doesn’t have his credit cards. They make a telephone call for him. He has his credit. To go into Canada by boat, he needs ID, his colonel card is gone. They helped him get some ID and we took the boat and went into Canada. As I recall, was it Victoria? And we went to the famous Buchard Gardens.
A few days later, we’re on Amtrak going home and a man getting off said to us, “How long have you two been married?”
“50 years,” the colonel said. “Glad that you’re happy together.”
One evening when the Colonel and I were on the dance floor at the Officer’s Club, the lovemusic and the songs had him in a very charming mood. I must say, I was very receptive. As he held me close, his face to mine, “You could have a life of leisure like this if you marry me, Laura. And don’t forget the twenty-five hundred dollars a month for life if you live with me one year and I die.”
Of all things the orchestra was playing, “Just a song at twilight when the lights are low.” From way back when. I was thinking, he would be uplifting me from widowhood and I would have his protection, helping me to cope with the problems of every day living, keeping me from falling, as he was doing now.
Was I just beginning to understand myself?, admitting that I needed his help if I wanted to survive this fast growing aging. The enormous struggle of trying to make it alone was so hard on me.
When the shocking news came that he was now in intensive care and the women were already standing vigil at his door saying prayers for him I was down to earth again. Nobody was allowed in but his brother, Monty. Monty catered to his brother, twenty years older, who lorded over him like a father keeping his son in line. Sometimes the Colonel got so mad
you could see the muscles in his face tighten and turn reddish-purple, but Monty was not about to cut down the tree that gave him plenty of fruit when he needed it. Nevertheless the two of them were hitched together, so to speak, the Colonel grabbing and holding onto Monty for dear life when
sick and that was pretty often with diabetes and high blood pressure and all, in and out of hospitals, needing assistance at home or to the doctors, Monty never failing him, always driving the hour and a half before or after work, even taking days off to help in this relationship.
As Jung indicates in his writings, no matter who you have, when you die, you die alone. Not the Colonel. He had Monty.
Who would have expected a man, who not long ago had his heart monitored every minute, to fight his way up on his feet and to move into a convalescent home? Monty gave up much of his home life to find just the right place where the Colonel would be happy, buffet food and gardens, a computer room, exercise equipment and library, a roll-up bed for his comfort, knick-knacks on walls, a lounge just like in a hotel, this convalescent home. And plenty of women, who straggled in,
whispering sweet words to the sick man, kissing his forehead, to make him believe he was still the handsome Colonel.
Once seeing that kind of stuff, I stayed away as much as possible. But not Monty. Nobody could push him away from his brother, who at times, more times than not, was angry and depressed.
He wanted to be himself, the Colonel, not the rag in bed with all those people now telling him that he had been in a coma for weeks, in the recovery room, in the hospital, night and day always a nurse at his side and only Monty.
The Colonel was not interested in all this finery. He wanted his old life back -- his officer’s club, his women. He loved his in-and-out romances, not staying in a room in one place. To hell with diabetes, the nurses and the doctors together.
“I’m getting out of here! I’m going home!” Shocking Monty. He had already spent much time giving up his brother’s apartment, using his power of attorney, sorting out the papers, the cancelled checks and records, the clothes, dishes, and artifacts gathered from Army years, thirty-two to be
exact, sold, given away. It took much thought and energy.
“You gave away my computer? I’m writing a book. There are too many Muslims in America. They’re taking over the country.”
“But Colonel,” giving him the respect, “you were in a coma.”
“And where’s my car?” he demanded.
“I have it. I’m taking care of it.”
“Well, you bring it here.”
“But you’re not driving. You’re not going anyplace.”
“That’s what I want. I want it to stand right in front of this window.”
Now sitting up in bed, Monty at his side, I sitting quietly in a corner – “My car,” he repeated, “you bring it, and you loosen up my cash. I don’t have a cent around here. I don’t want the girl coming in ‘You want a cookie, Colonel?’”
Monty saying, “All you have to do is go up to the restaurant and order whatever you want and charge it – anyway, your cash gets lost in the laundry with your pants -- and you don’t even wearthem twice.”
“The consumer foots the bill so what do you care? I ask for whole milk and they bring me that water stuff.”
Then turning to me, “Laura,” he said “you can tell the waitress if you don’t like something or tell me and I’ll handle it. When you’re with me people have to treat you right. I always see to that – you’re all by yourself…”
“Oh, say, look who’s here,” all smiles – “My army friend, my best friend – I’m going to find an apartment and we’re back in the Army again.”
The caretaker comes in and circles her temple – “the man’s off a little bit.”
“How does she know? Can she see inside my brain? Find me my other pants,” he’s yelling at them. “I’m getting out of here.”
Monty gets busy looking through a pillow case filled with soiled clothes, to find the pants the Colonel needs to go find an apartment. His Army friend picked up a magazine.
“Let’s wait and see if you’re strong enough,” Monty is saying. “I found another doctor to come in and examine you. You’re on a lot of medication.”
“Why now? You think I’m nutty? Because I want to be in my own home? I’m back from the other world, I want to live. And I came back from other worlds, more than once.”
The following day, Monty brought his car back and it stood outside the window. The Colonel fought it out and managed to hire a woman driver. He’s going to get out of there. She’ll drive him around. He’ll go to the supermarket and buy the pig’s sausage that he likes, and pig cheese. He wants some decent food for a change, and he’s going to be back in his own home.
A caged lion in his wheel chair, in the corridor roaring at Monty who is standing at the wall waiting to be chewed to pieces together with the convalescent home, all those open doors,caretakers, visitors, patients, and me in the middle. We’re all standing there, listening.
“You thief! You stole everything I had! You took all my money. You got rid of my home. I have nothing. Where are my clothes? You stole from me. You always stole from me!”
The Colonel was getting up out of that wheelchair to tear Monty apart. That wasn’t him, an old sick man. He was the Colonel.
Monty responding slowly, patiently, “the doctor said this would be the best place for you, so I found it for you.”
The Colonel softened, “Monty,” he said, “you can love your children, but you may not like what they do.”
From out of the blue I get a call.
“I’m you neighbor again, Laura, can you believe it? I’m in my own apartment, only a few blocks away from you.”
He had called the office, rented the apartment, managed to buy furniture, hired a nurse, signed a contract for daily nursing service.
“We’re going to the officer’s club,” he said, “like we used to do, and take trips. So you get yourself ready now. We’re going to live it up, Laura.” He was his own self, up and down with the
temper that changed with his moods.
The next day another call, “How you doing, Laura?”
“Colonel – what a surprise.”
“Can you believe it? I moved in a few blocks from you, got some furniture together, and even signed a contract for daily nursing service.” He forgot he already told me that yesterday.
“I feel like I just got home from India,” he said, “but no wife to greet me, Laura. I never did find the five o’clock follies in Saigon. As for the Philippines, I want to forget that part. And please don’t bring that one up again – I never noticed any other woman but you. It’s just that the past is like a rope around me. ‘You sent us your sons, and now we return the bodies.’ Since Lincoln said it better, and I had to write the letters, I copied the ones he wrote to the bereaved families, updating the Civil War.” A break in his voice, “It’s been lonely around here, Laura.”
“Lonely?” I said. “What’s that?” A flip-flop of an answer considering that I did understand his heart, his loneliness. There were times when I was lonely too.
“You’ll have company,” I said. “Monty will be showing up…”
“Well. He bought me a sofa. So how about coming over and seeing it? I’ll order in pizza and teriyaki chicken and we’ll have a good time.”
“Sounds great but I’ve had a few setbacks myself, Colonel. I can’t jump and run as fast as I used to.”
“I can only tell this to a good friend like you, Laura. I’m scared of being alone. A tough guy like me, I’m afraid of myself,” laughing like crazy all of a sudden. “I thought of something very funny,” he said. “You know my jokes,” laughing, coughing. “I’ll tell you when you get here.”
Clearing his throat to tune up, he began to sing “Amazing Grace” as he used to over the phone to me.
A few days later, not much longer, his Army friend called me, “Brace yourself, Laura. This morning I stopped by to see the Colonel – no answer to the bell – and going to all the windows I found one I could open and climbed in.” I had to wait until he could tell me how he found the Colonel, on the floor, dead.
I am sitting back from my tape recorder, a quiet Sunday evening. I am just relaxing. The men in my life after Mannie died could never get to me. For me, regardless of all the problems that we had, long forgotten now, only the good remains. There is always Mannie.