The Visit

“I have company,” my father said as I walked into his apartment, his eyes blinking beneath his fluff of white hair. He sat on his recliner with his telephone, his remote control, and his cup of cold milky coffee on the small table beside him. An orange tomcat with a torn ear lay curled in a second recliner. The cat looked at me with curiosity, motionless, like a wild animal in the forest. I glanced at the open door of the second bedroom, but saw no one there, only a large poster that looked as if it had been hand lettered by an elementary teacher. Jonathon’s Room, it read. The other two rooms, posted Ike’s Room and Bathroom, had open doors, too. Empty, no doubt.

“Hi,” I said. “Uh, hallucinations?”

“I guess so,” he said. He didn’t get up to greet me. His movements were slow and planned, like the slides of chess pieces. But my father didn’t play chess. He played euchre.

“I brought dinner for us,” I said. “I thought it would be easier than going out to eat. Restaurants are busy on Friday nights. We might have to wait for a table.”

The wait that most concerned me was the slow passage as he worked his way across a dining room, the unsteady gait of patients taking their first walk down hospital corridors after surgery. Looming even larger was the wait as he finished his meal. His neurological disorder, as insidious as rust, affected his fine motor skills including his ability to chew and swallow. I might consciously slow my eating pace, taking tiny bites like someone eating a Wait Watcher’s meal, and then chew a hundred times before swallowing, and still leave him in the dust while I fidgeted with my paper napkin and took sips of water as my empty plate dried.

“There will be all the more food for us,” I said. “It looks as if your guests have disappeared.”

“I guess so,” he said.

“Are you hungry?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he said.

“I’ll set the table, okay?”

“Okay,” he said. “There’s coffee.”

I glanced at the coffeemaker, the glass carafe a quarter full. I assumed that the coffee had been made in the morning. “Thanks,” I said, “but I’m fine. I’ve had too much coffee today. I drank coffee on the drive here, and then I’d have to stop and pee, and as long as I was at a gas station, I’d get another cup of coffee. And so it goes.”

Taped to the side of the coffeemaker were directions for brewing coffee, each step carefully numbered and spelled out in the same lettering. I opened cabinet doors and pulled open drawers randomly until I had found the plates, glasses, and silverware that we needed.

Taped on the cabinet door above the microwave were hand-lettered directions for heating a cold cup of coffee, for making instant oatmeal, for warming canned soup. I was reminded of the storyboards first grade teachers once made, an enthusiastic instructor soliciting contributions from the tiny scholars and then dutifully copying them onto the large sheet of newsprint, even if the narratives were random and disjointed.

“How have you felt?” I asked him, offering a hand as he launched himself into a standing position.

“Tired,” he said. “I’ve felt awful tired. I haven’t slept well, lately.”

He had been dozing while I set the table and placed food on it. “That’s too bad,” I said. “I hope you’ll feel better tomorrow.”

As we slowly navigated across the living room to the dining area, the orange tomcat rubbing itself against my ankle, I stared at the poster above the door that announced Outside. We were making progress, now nearing Jonathon’s Room, passing the antique chest of drawers that functioned as my father’s pharmaceutical buffet. Jonathon was server, keeping the stash of pills hidden in his room, placing individual portions of a half dozen tablets or more in small plastic boxes labeled by the same careful primary hand, 5:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m., 4:30 p.m., and Bedtime.

Jonathon was a forty-year-old unemployed carpenter that my sister had found through an agency linking elderly people with companions. Room and board was the compensation for providing company and living assistance. Jonathon’s free weights were lined along one wall. His sofa-bed faced his television, with just enough space in the tiny room to make it up with sheets and blankets each night.

He worked occasionally as a painter and was apparently at work this afternoon. Jonathon was a pleasant, friendly guy, buff and energetic, with the twelve-step approach to conversation common to reformed substance abusers, as if he were using my sister’s posters as cue cards.

“What’re you eating?” my father asked, once I had him seated and the food dished onto our plates. He spoke in simple sentences, but struggled for the words as if they were socks tangled at the bottom of a bureau drawer.

“It’s a lentil casserole,” I told him. “I thought you’d prefer the beef pot roast dinner.”

“Looks like beans,” he said.

“But it’s not,” I said. “Lentils are like flattened peas.”

He wrinkled his nose and made a face.

“It’s vegetarian,” I said. “They’re quite good. Would you like a taste?”

He shook his head, and we ate silently.

Our meal in some respects represented our relationship, our separate but equal existence, a parallel but non-interactive companionship. Throughout my adult life I had been a runner, a silent sports guy: running, cross-country skiing, and biking. My father didn’t consider an activity a sport unless it had a motor: a racecar, a snowmobile, a motorboat. I was a high school English teacher who gardened for recreation. My father was a retired farmer and school bus driver who unwound watching Nascar races wind up.

When my father and I talk, the words sound scripted, like conversation in a foreign language textbook

Perhaps I was my mother’s love child. Maybe an encyclopedia salesman pulled in the drive one summer afternoon when my father was plowing a far field, and while the traveling salesman didn’t make a sale, he nevertheless scored.

My mother was always more frugal than faithful.

“Do the posters help?” I asked him, playing plate-hockey with the last of my lentils. He had finished only a quarter of his pot roast.

“Huh?” he said, looking up at me as if I had disturbed a deep reverie.

For a moment, I imagined my father’s apartment as a foreign language classroom, neatly printed labels on everything: Lamp, Table, Chair, Clock, Cat, Visitor.

“The posters, Jonathon’s Room, Bathroom, Outside. Do they help you remember where you are? When you have one of your spells?”

My father’s condition was called Supra Nuclear Palsy, a disorder that is first cousin to Parkinson’s Disease. He took Mirapex to slow the neurological deterioration, a drug that allowed him to continue to button his shirt, if slowly and painstakingly, and to unzip his pants, and to wipe his butt.

This miracle drug, though, is like something that Dr. Timothy Leary might proscribe. The hallucinations are far out, man. Once my father saw his toddler great-granddaughter climbing over the railing on the balcony of his third floor apartment. Another time, he saw me sitting out on his patio in the rain. On a different occasion he was awakened to watch workmen mixing cement in the doorway of his bedroom.

“Guess so,” he said, looking at his pot roast rather than me.

“They help?”

“Well,” he laughed softly, “Loretta thinks so.”

“She wants us to call her Jade now.” My sister had legally changed her first name, now no longer named after my mother’s mother. And Loretta Young, the actress.

“Don’t know,” he said, shaking his head, staring intently at his plate, wishing the conversation would go away, like one of his specters.

“I think the posters are a waste of time,” I said. “The very nature of dementia is an inability to recognize reality. Road signs aren’t going to help. All they do is remind you of your hallucinations when you are lucid. It’s just depressing.”

“Don’t know,” he said again.

“Well, I do,” I said, and as he picked at his pot roast, I carefully removed the posters, Outside, Bathroom, Jonathon’s Room, Ike’s Room. I started to remove the microwave directions, and then thought better of it. “There’s cake,” I said when I had finished. I felt better already. I cut a piece for each of us. “I’ll put your leftover pot roast in the refrigerator. You can have it for lunch tomorrow.”

On the door of his refrigerator my sister had pasted the newspaper obituaries of three of my father’s contemporaries: Joseph Johnson, Myra Crary, and Clyde Joyce. I carefully removed them, too.

And then the cake was eaten.

“It was good seeing you again, Dad,” I said as I filled the dishwasher with our dirty plates and silverware and wiped crumbs and spills from the table and kitchen counter. “I’ll leave the rest of the cake with you. Maybe Jonathon would like some.”

My father managed to stand without help. “You don’t need to see me downstairs,” I said, giving him a hug. He felt and smelled like a thin bundle of clothes that had been stored over winter in a closet. I kissed his cheek, his skin as soft as pie dough, despite the bristle of whiskers he had missed when he shaved.

“You take care,” I said, and then noticed him glancing at the blank spot on the wall where the Outside sign had been posted. He looked worried.

I turned away so he wouldn’t see the tears in my eyes. I had always cried too easily, from the time I was a boy. And the appearance of my tears had always made me feel worse than whatever had occasioned them. Fuck you, I muttered in a half whisper, too soft for him to hear. Fuck you. Fuck you.

The tape had remained on the posters and had kept its stickiness. They clung to their former locations as I pressed them onto the walls: Outside, Jonathon’s Room, Ike’s Room, Bathroom.

I replaced the obits, too, Joseph Johnson, Myra Crary, and Clyde Joyce.

“Good-bye,” I said, closing the door on my father as he stood like an ancient waif, the orange tomcat pressed against his leg.

Dad has always hated cats, I muttered as I walked down the hallway, perky with autumn door decorations, colored leaves, dried flowers, and placards, The World’s Greatest Grandma Lives Here.

Gary Jones is a writer and teacher who lives in Northern Door with his wife of many years. He enjoys reading, gardening, and running.

Judge comments:

The Visit is a compassionate and quixotic story about an adult son overcoming his anger and resentment to care for his ailing father. The story is peppered with quirky details: signs labeling every room in the house, lentil casseroles, a former drug user and unemployed carpenter hired to relieve the burden of keeping the old man company. Told in spare, but often fluid prose, The Visit is King Lear in miniature.

– David McGlynn