Guest Post – Inseparable – Part 1

Guest Post by Will Maguire

copyright 2016

When I was 17 and living on my own…certain that I knew more about anything than anyone around me….I took a job for a few months as a janitor at an old folks home.

My friends and I called it the Home for the Nearly Dead.  It was at the edge of town like it was slowly being pushed out there to the precipice of living, far from view.

It was a sad and decrepit little place with peeling paint and linoleum floors and a funeral home next door. That part of town had its own zip code…and some of the townspeople called it the Hereafter, like it was a rest spot between living and whatever comes later.

I was dating a girl out in the sticks so I would regularly go thru the Hereafter to get near her…the way a teenage boy will for any girl.

Passing through one day I saw a ‘help wanted’ sign and answered it.  They hired me on the spot.

When I told my friends I had gotten a job at the Home for the Nearly Dead they all laughed.

The people there were so old we thought they were another species. Kind of human…but not like us. Not revving to run thru the days, not trying to make some girl, not getting loaded or sleeping on the beach, or trying to figure a way to make the world their kingdom.

That’s what life is like at 17. The world becomes a simple matter of speed.  And I was chasing things with all my might full of only the certainty that they would be caught.

I became the groundskeeper at the Hereafter. This meant I was a janitor and a painter for the aged and the dying. Trying to make the world look neat and trim, trying to make the calamity of isolation seem orderly, and trying to forever mop up the dread that seemed to settle in its halls.

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I had to cut the lawn too. I would do it at night …after I got off my other job.  And then after midnight, I’d mop floors and try to make the place feel a little less lonely, like it could be washed away.

The lady who ran the place never gave me a hard time about when I did it…as long as it got done.

I can recall cutting the lawn at night a few times.  Drunk once or twice. I think I even snuck my girl in a time or two to some empty bed on the ward. The Hereafter was as good as any place to chase love…or at least the 17-year-old version of it.

I remember they didn’t pay much but I needed the money so we were a match. I guess they liked having someone around whose heart could still race instead of merely meander.

There was this old man on the main floor. His grown kids had abandoned him there.

That’s really what it is…they drive by a couple times, sign the papers, then drop an old man or woman at the far edge of town into the Hereafter.

This guy’s kids would come by once a month and, because he was hard of hearing, holler at him in a loud voice….. like he was a thousand miles away. I suppose in a way he was.

But he wasn’t an idiot…and I could see how much it humiliated him. To be yelled at by his kids…who felt like they had to make this pilgrimage every once in a while just so they could look into the mirror. I watched it a few times. It was like watching some bad rerun.‘How are you, Dad? Can I get you anything Dad?’

You know the routine. It was merely obligatory…like he was a stranger who just happened to have the same last name.

It was like they had a bill that said they owed love and respect ….but had forgotten the actual debt.

This guy was a plumber. He had crawled around under kitchens and basements on his hands and knees in tight spaces for 50 years. Whenever someone called and was drowning in their own houses he would grab a wrench and go. So he knew a busted pipe when he saw one.  And proud.  Fixing things for decades makes a person self-reliant and proud. And he truly believed there was nothing in this life he couldn’t fix.But he could barely walk anymore.

And try as he might there was never any way to fix the pipes of time he had left.

They were just worn out, stripped at the nut from so many days coursing through them. He was crawling under his last days and knew it.

He had spent years on his hands and knees and now just wanted to stand and walk. He wanted to wrench his way forward instead of staying stuck in the bed where they expected him to die.

So every night, very late… he’d angle himself off his bed and unsteadily grab one of those walkers with tennis balls on the legs and slowly drag himself one tiny uncertain step after another out into the hall. He’d only do it at night…when there was no one to holler at him about how he shouldn’t be up, shouldn’t be trying to move, shouldn’t be doing anything but lying in a bed  waiting on Death to finally find his room.

And late at night, we would meet unexpectedly sometimes.

The 17-year-old kid racing from job to job mopping the floors late at night and the eighty something plumber who, once again in a tight space, was trying to stand on his own two feet and walk through the hallways of the Hereafter.

I’d watch him some nights creep down the hallway. It was excruciating. The steps were so small. We got so we would nod and not say anything. I really didn’t know what to say to him.

I was a little afraid he would slip and fall on my mopped floor.

And I was afraid that Death was so close to him that it might take a hard long look at me if I got too close.

So I would watch him …not to help so much as to try to save my own ass if he went down.

And I got into the habit of waiting for him to make his great escape each night and to watch him struggle against his own failing flesh. I could see how much it hurt him to make those tiny steps…and how much it hurt him not to. And caught between those two kinds of pain each night he summoned up the will to demonstrate he was still living…to himself.

I found him one-night leaning against a wall in the dark. He had slipped….and could not quite regain his footing. I remember I was drunk…and so was unsteady myself. It was after midnight so the lights were off…except his room light with an open door at the end of the corridor. I saw him there…a shadow in the darkened hall….and stumbled over and grabbed his arm trying to lift him up. The unsteady 17-year-old and the unsteady 80 something leaning for a moment on each other.

His arm felt like a twig in November. Not really bone anymore, more like the memory of it. He hoarsely whispered to me “No, No, No,…I’m fine…’

Brave……  Self-reliant.

So I let go…like a person building a house of cards lets go of the last card…and moves his hand slowly away…certain it could all come tumbling down any second.

Then in that darkened hall, that old man…a shadow in the dark crept away toward the light.

This was the first time I ever saw courage. And though at 17 I could not name it, I remember being in awe of it. Much later I came to understand it is usually found in the darkened hallways of any person’s days. It appears when the floor is slippery and when a soul is most unsteady.

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I still think of him sometimes when I am not quite sure if I am steady enough.

I suppose that’s a kind of immortality. I suppose the best part of us, seen even at a distance can echo like that. Echo on for years.

The old man died a few days later. There was never a pipe he could not fix, except of course Time’s. It leaks in ways that cannot be repaired. He was a plumber.  A fixer of the leaks of life. Filled with a common kind of courage. So common it is hard to see.

And his kids…. who hollered at his deafness each month came and stood in his room… without a word… at last.

An old man loses his legs and he grows courage in their place. The torrent of it runs faster because there’s a hole in the pipe.  

There is some strange arithmetic at work in the human heart. Take away something …something you cannot do without …subtract it…and the sum somehow becomes larger.

They grow together.

Inseparable.

 

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Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter.  His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers. It is a pleasure to share his work on this blog.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Guest Post – Inseparable – Part 2

Guest Post by Will Maguire

copyright 2016

My boss, an old lady with butterfly glasses and a beehive hairdo, asked me to fill in one month on the morning shift.

This was a problem because I had a couple other jobs and I liked to finish late and drink beer until I couldn’t remember how poor and stupid and full of myself I was.

But she was insistent. So I found a way. I’d show up around 8 a.m. with my head aching and smelling, I’m quite sure, like I had spent the night face down in a puddle of stale beer.

Early each day I began to notice his old man in the visitors room. He was always the first one there. Always wore a white shirt and tie, combed and shaved and neat. cravat-987584_640He walked with a cane and when they opened the ward for visitors he would always check himself in the mirror. Like he was going on a date, like he wanted to look his best.

 

His wife of 60 years was in the ward.

She had started falling…and then started forgetting. Little things at first…misplaced keys, misplaced glasses.

And she would ask him, ‘What did I do with them? Would you remember that for me?’

Then one day she got lost coming home from the grocery store. And then a week later he found her lost and frightened in their own cellar.

He took her to a doctor finally and listened as the doctor explained that the past…every bit of it …would eventually disappear.

He tried and wrestled with the doubt and guilt but it became clear in a few months that he could not care for her.

So he found this place at the edge of the Hereafter, sold their house and took an apartment as near as he could.

He made all the arrangements, all the time fighting down the growing panic at the thought of being apart.

When he signed the papers and walked her in, he felt like a traitor to every secret vow a man’s heart can make to itself.

I was there that day mopping the floor. He was stricken…with loneliness I suppose and dread. I saw it in his face, though I’m sure I didn’t understand what I was seeing. How could I?

What did I know at 17 of having your heart cleaved in two, hollowed out at the prospect of what you know with certainty is crawling toward you?

She cried when he left that day. And without him near seemed to lose her bearings. It can happen like that…a heart can become unmoored.

And mopping the floors some nights I would hear her calling out that she didn’t know anyone or where this place was…. or even sometimes who she herself was anymore.

I would civilian-service-63616_640stand outside her door listening and trying to translate that kind of terror into something my 17-year-old pea brain could understand.

It was like listening to the foreign language…of loneliness.

But the old man would show up every morning…and would stand in that very spot outside her door …..steeling himself.

Day after day, he would paint a smile on his face and turn in to her room and in a loud voice brightly say good morning and how beautiful she looked again.

She would always brighten at the sight of him. Like a young girl in love for the very first time. And he would sit by her side and each morning say,  “Do you know who I am?”

Somedays she would laugh and respond,  “Of course…what a silly question…you think I could ever forget who I love….my husband of 60 years?”

And he would retell her things she had forgotten…a trip to the Cape each summer…the time he asked her to marry him…that first house before the kids.

family memories

Sometimes she would understand and ask,  ‘We did all that?’ in real wonder. And sometimes she would not…could not understand. Like the glue of memory had gotten so old that it cracked and fell away.

“Never mind…never mind  that darling,’ he would say.…’I’ll remember it for you.’

Near the end of the month, I watched him again…cane in hand, dressed like he was going on a first date, stand in that spot outside her room then, once again, turn inside. I went and stood in the spot, mop in hand and listened.

Once again he was gently asking,  “Do you know who I am?”

There was no answer. And he put his face close to hers so she could see him clearly and he whispered again, “Do you know who I am?”

Her eyes searched his face trying in vain to summon some forgotten landmark in her heart she might recognize. Then she whispered to him, “ I don’t know where this place is…or who I am.  I know I should…I know I should…” trying to  recover what had already leaked away.

He was trying to quiet her. “Hush…hush now…it’s alright.  I’m here.’

‘I know I should,’ she protested.

Then- ‘…… I don’t know your name…sir,’ all the time searching his eyes with her own. ‘..But I know …I can rely on you … I always will. I don’t know your name ….but I know who you are.’

If a heart has ears I felt mine begin to burn. I didn’t want to hear anymore. I never wanted to hear anything again. I stumbled away, back down the hallway of hereafter. I remember I threw the mop and I kicked over the bucket. What was the point. How could the world ever be clean again?

I quit that morning and I never went back.

 

The world is a beautiful place. It is a terrible place.

They grow together.

Inseparable.

Scrape a sorrowful thing and you expose the beauty. Scrape a thing of real beauty and there’s always some sacrifice…some sadness at the heart of it. They require each other.

 

A husband and wife of 60 years facing certain loss… …makes their love not smaller but larger.

And it humbles me still to think of it…to realize how little I understand.

I was 17 …and a poor boy with only a glimmer of understanding. Standing there listening, I felt some part of me quiver…and since then that quivering, like a small earthquake only I can feel, has never stopped.

I feel it shaking some nights in my dreams. I feel it sitting wordlessly in the dark on my shoulders whispering its tremor into my sleeping heart. It tells me again and again there is something larger….something hidden at work.

And some nights it whispers to me about this life and the Hereafter. It tells me it is more beautiful and more terrible than my heart’s clay foundation can bear.

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Will Maguire is a fellow short story writer whose path intersected with mine on Twitter.  His stories explore the depths of human experience and have a haunting quality that lingers.

It is a pleasure to share his work on this blog.

 

Good Morning Aboard Caralee

Their movements were automatic with a choreograph-like smoothness.  In a galley smaller than most American coat closets, this was an accomplishment. The 45 foot Caralee housed all of their worldly possessions and had transported them to exotic ports all over the globe.

He reached for bowls while she filled a pot with water. He struck a match to light the flame on the stove as she pulled out spoons from the drawer. She placed the pot on the burner while taking a box of oats out of the cupboard.

When hands were not occupied with tasks, they would glide across or alight upon the other’s body; a brush down the back, coming to rest on a shoulder, a hip or making a light tap on the behind.

Oats were added when the water boiled, the pot covered and the heat turned down. During the brief pause in their morning dance, their eyes lingered on each other; they smiled.

He enjoyed watching the light play across the pink facets of the pendant that always hung around her neck. A gift he’d presented to her some thirty-five years earlier on the day that Asmara was born. Their only child had been conceived above deck, on a warm night, under a ripe Sri Lankan moon.

Sitting hip to hip at the tiny table, they held hands as they ate. Her nervous fingers twisted his wedding ring around and around on his finger. She paused occasionally to rub her fingernail over the smooth mound of rose quartz that she’d found in Brazil.

Before taking that first sip of coffee, they clinked mugs together softly. A tradition adopted from their time in the British Isles.  It signified ‘a robust day and a tender heart.’

Photography by: Mark Pepall
Photography by: Mark Pepall

Bundled in coats, they went topside to welcome the sun as it crested the horizon. Elbows resting on the rail they let the cool breeze flow across exposed skin. Smiling, she turned to him, observing the lines on his face and the wiry gray hair that steadily overtook the brown along with the passage of time.  She thought that he looked as good as the day they met…even better. She mouthed the words, ‘olive juice.’ This was a family joke; these words look like something else if one is lip reading. A chuckle from deep in his chest echoed across the water.

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Story Prompt: [reddit writing prompt]

A married couple starts another average morning on an average weekday. No one dies. No twist. Show their overwhelming love for each other without them speaking a single word.

Inspiration:

Answered Prayers

A hint of lemons on the ocean breeze coming through the open window brought a wistful smile to Marzia’s face as she pulled more wet laundry from the tiny washing machine. She could already taste those lemons in her mouth at the end of the day.

Carlo would be in the fields now laughing and smiling with the men and women who also worked there. Carlo was always bright and cheerful, not like his sister who’d grown increasingly tired and sour with the years.

Marzia carried a heavy sheet out to the balcony where she added it to the others that swayed and moved with the currents of the warm scented air. Looking down below, she spotted young Theresa and Paulo hiding and giggling near the corner of the market. They didn’t realize that they had an audience as they French kissed and ran their hands over each other in places that would have their mothers squawking.

She remembered when she’d been Theresa’s age, wearing the starched white shirts and pleated skirts of the Catholic school. Toni Marellli had been her boyfriend then. They’d thought that the same corner was private too.  After Carlo’s accident, Toni had gone away. Marzia stalked him sometimes on the internet. The photos of his receding hairline, beer buddies and of his two grown daughters always stayed with her for days. That would have been my life.

When the disaster struck—the one that had left the top half of her brother’s skull missing, Marzia knelt in the surgery waiting room saying prayers on her rosary and begging God to let Carlo live. God had granted that wish. The Doctors warned her that Carlo would probably not live past the age of twenty-five.

They were both in their sixties now. Carlo worked during harvest in the lemon and olive fields perched on the steep slopes of the coastal mountains.  In the early evenings, he sat at the edges of the walkway leading down to the Ligurian Sea. He smiled innocently at the tourists who regarded him with surprised pity. There was never a language barrier for Carlo. Turning his head so that they had a clear view of his injury, he motioned toward his hat lying near his feet. The loose change that he proudly poured into their kitchen table did help make ends meet, as did Mariza’s miniature sketches that she drew of seascapes and buildings in their tiny town. The sheets she washed were destined for tourist beds. At night, she sipped on Carlo’s share of the Limoncello that he received at the conclusion of the harvest season.

In her top dresser drawer was the rosary that she’d used that night. She hadn’t touched it since. If Carlo beat her to the grave, she planned to put it in with his ashes.

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Story Prompt: WriteOn weekend challenge: 500 words or less – “Window”

Inspiration: A trip to Manarola, Italy in Cinque Terra – art and photography by the author