Losing Allen by Nate Beyer
I hear my daughter on the line from California, and she's talking, telling me something about the job she has, or might have soon, or could have, if conditions are right. It would be a boon that would allow her to augment what she brings in from her “artistic pursuits.” A sculptress! A nice girl from Queens has apparently given birth to a sculptress.
Finally she asks, "Is Dad around?"
I look over at him, his face an uncomfortable distance from the TV. Maybe his eyes are shot now.
“Oh, no. He's out in the yard."
"The last few leaves," I say.
"Well, tell him I love him. Look forward to seeing him for the holidays."
I nod and get on with all the pleasantries. By the time I hang up, I feel like a criminal. I haven't told her, not really. At all. I've only let her talk to him in short bursts--little bits of conversation that don't become confused in the morass of his thinking. You try to do the right thing, but after a while, it becomes hard to figure out what that is.
We meet her at the airport. About this I am tense. Hardly slept thinking about it. Exactly the kind of place the Al might get lost— new, full of people coursing from one end to the other. I park the car and he's worried, I see. She could have taken a cab, but it's far enough to be damn expensive, and I know she hasn't got much.
“What are we doin' here?” he asks.
“Leslie, remember? We're picking her up.”
He nods as if marking an item on a checklist.
Inside, it's a big barn of a room with those high windows that are supposed to make it look less sterile, but in gray December it just seems dingy. I hold his hand to make sure. We go to the wrong gate, then make it the other end of the terminal, only to find Leslie emerge from the crowd towing a small suitcase.
“You made it,” I say, flat. I don't even glance at Allen.
But he speaks. “Leslie,” he says and pauses. I've prepped him, shown him photos old and recent, re-hashed bits of history.
“You're so beautiful,” he exhales. Then he takes her and they embrace, deeply.
After they finish all the clutching, I take her hand in both of mine. “They told us the wrong gate. Way over there. But good to see you anyway.”
“How have you been, Dad?” she asks.
“She's talking to you, Allen,” I say, louder. “It's Leslie back there.”
“Oh, Leslie,” he says as if taken by surprise.
She catches my eye in the mirror, but I give her nothing. Instead I change the subject to dinner. Even the wayward and the infirm must eat.
He has to be reminded three times where we're going, even as we circle around to his favorite restaurant downtown. Then, when we sit down, the menus in front of us, Allen slips a hand into mine and gathers up Leslie's in his other. Now I can see it, can't help but see her eyes, dark and gleaming in the soft light. Her hair, that hair I could never get a comb through.
' “I want to say,” he begins, squeezing our hands. “I want to say that I'm so glad. So grateful to be here, with you.” He's slowing now, as if the words have to be found and forced out, unwilling to leave the warmth of his mouth. “I just love so much. You.” He looks at me. “And you too.” He looks at Leslie and his lips part again, but he's done. He's reached the end of his words. Water streams down his cheeks.
“Dad, Dad, it's okay,” Leslie rises and moves to him, kneeling beside him. “It's all right,” She puts her arm around him. He just nods and looks away.
“We need to order,” I say, snapping my menu open.
She frowns at me. “The restaurant isn't going to burn down.”
I let the appetizers and entrees swim in my eyes, holding the menu up. Still I can see her loop her arms around him, his eyes bewildered, darting like minnows in a dark stream. I excuse myself and head to the bathroom. I don't want a scene. I'm done with scenes now, and I don't want to hug someone I no longer know.
That night I help Leslie with her bag, leading her to her old room, long since stripped of her personal effects-- the Talking Heads poster, the magazine clippings that papered the far wall, only a few glow-in-the-dark stars still cling to the ceiling. I sit on the edge of the bed as she puts her things in her old dresser.
“Mom,” she says, her back to me. “What's wrong with Dad?”
I look down at my hands, the tissue threaded between them.
“You know,” I say.
Silence, then, Leslie: “You mean--”
“For sure,” I say.
Her hands find the top of her dresser. I can hear her breath, raspy now. I want to reach out to her, but she's too far away.
“A couple months. He went in. He wouldn't for a long time. You know how he hates all that. But it was too bad. He was getting lost. All the time. Then the visits, the tests.”
She whirls around, her eyes still wet. “Why didn't you tell me?”
I can't return her gaze. My mouth has grown stiff.
“Why not? Did you think I couldn't handle it? Mother, I'm nearly forty.”
“It wasn't about you,” I say, and this seems to stop her.
“I couldn't. The doctor, the neurologist, she suggested that we look into places. There's a day program that will take him sometimes. So I can get things done. But after that he'll have to go somewhere.”
“To a home?”
I nod. “I looked, one day. They said I should so I went. These places— they have special wings, you know, for people who can't remember anymore. They roam the hallways, talking to no one. There was one doing circles, snot trailing into his mouth. The good ones they pointed out to me, they sat by themselves, just sat all day. Not even waiting anymore, not even anything, all of them sliding away, hardly even people anymore, in diapers like children.”
“I can't do that. I'm done with all that. I can't watch him, I can't see him.”
Then I stop. The rug on the floor is rounds of braided cream and blue. I feel my daughter's hand on my shoulder.
“I'm sorry Mom.”
Something turns inside me, drops, and I get to my feet.
“Well,” I say, putting my hand in hers. “That's life.”
In the morning, after I clean him up, Leslie emerges from her room, pale and worn, dark circles under her eyes and a faint yeasty smell to her. She declines the oatmeal I offer and instead leans against the counter and drinks a glass of water. When I ask her if she's ok, she will only say she went “out.” Once she revives a bit, she suggests we get a tree. A Christmas tree. It seems like a lot of bother, but I don't say anything, especially after Allen takes to the idea.
“A tree,” he repeats to himself.
“Yes Allen,” I say. “A Christmas tree. Just like old times.”
I smile at the two of them, horrified inside at the liar I've become.
Driving to the tree lot, I have to pull over so Leslie can barf. All along the side of the road, in front of God and all. I lean over and hold her hair back as she wretches into the gutter.
“She's sick?” Allen asks from the back.
“Yes, dear,” I say. “Bottle flu.”
“She need a doctor?”
“Oh no. I hear its going around this time of year.”
Leslie pops back up in the passenger seat, wiping her mouth and mumbling an apology,
I stretch my lips into a smile. “This is going to be a merry little Christmas.”
By the time we get to the lot, I'm positively giddy. I lead my shambling family up to the man with the chainsaw. Tufts of gray spill out around his flannel skullcap like remnants of an old-growth forest.
“We'd like a tree,” I say. “My daughter's a little hung over and my husband can no longer remember the days of the week, so we'd like a nice big tree to make us all feel normal.”
I can see he doesn't know what to do for a minute. Then he grunts and leads us to a stand of white pine.
“The best,” he says.
Back home, Leslie, changed into sweatpants and an oversized knit sweater, holds the tree as we lower it into the stand. Allen smiles, his hands clutched under his chin.
“Now we put on the ornaments,” I say and guide him over to the box.
We wrap strands of lights around the thing first, Allen holding the cord in his hand silently. He has to be told where to move— he seems transfixed by it all. There are two levels of do-dads tucked under the cardboard lid, one a bunch of fancy stuff we've had for years— crystal reindeer and stars, colored cut glass with little sayings on it, and another of cheap stuff we can replace at Walgreen's if necessary. Leslie doles them out to us, making sure that the wire hooks are attached. I look for holes, trying to put the best ones at eye level. Then I notice Allen. He's hanging them on the drapes, the lampshade.
“The ornaments go on the tree,” I say.
He looks at me, blank.
“In your hand. The ornaments.” I point at a green branch.”Go on the tree.”
“Mom, who cares. Let him put stuff where he wants.”
“The ornaments go on the tree. This isn't a tavern. You can't just do whatever you want, you know.” I feel myself getting hot, and the room seems to grow further away. “Things have an order, a place, and you can't just go around willy-nilly.”
My legs seem to fold under me and in a moment, I'm on the ground, Allen and Leslie hovering above. Allen is cringing. My heart is fluttering around in my chest. “Fine,” I say. “Put the damn ornaments anywhere you want.”
For the rest of the day, I sit while Leslie takes care of luck (peanut butter on white) and dinner (take out). Allen is worried, I can see. He won't leave the room, sits beside me, right at my elbow, even follows me into the bathroom-- I have to make him wait outside the door.
“I love you,” he says through the closed door.
“Yes, I know,” I say as my pee splatters into the bowl.
The next morning Leslie wakes us a little after eight. She's made breakfast- oatmeal and toast, small glasses of low-acidity orange juice laid out on the table. I watch her move around the room, pouring the steaming mash of grains into bowls. “Organic,” she says, and pulls a medley of cut fruit from the fridge. She tries, I can see that. She was never the brightest, but my girl did lean to work hard along the way. She sits next to me and I pat her hand.
“Thank you,” I say and have to wipe my eye. Something has gotten stuck there.
We eat our breakfast in the quiet. Outside, a bit of snow swirls around the eves. Even Allen seems subdued. Probably still half-asleep. We're all a little thrown off, I guess. We bring the dishes over to the sink, and Leslie, her eyes bright, stands at the doorway.
“We're going to meditate,” she says, smiling.
I take a breath. “Really?”
“Mom, it's perfect. It will help you relax.”
“Who says I need to relax,” I say, but she just shoots me a look.
“It's even supposed to be good for Dad's memory.”
So I smile at her. It's the new me. “All right, dear.”
We move to the living room, and at first she tries to get us to all sit on the floor. On the floor!
“I got quite enough of the floor yesterday,” I say and perch myself on the couch.
Allen just looks at her face for a moment.
“The floor, Dad,” she says, motioning to the carpet. For a moment, the two of them are caught in some kind of pantomime, almost a farce, his head following the arc of her hand moving toward the floor. Finally she sits, and he follows.
“Are we going to play a game,” he asks.
“No,” she says, then: “yes. You can say that. A game. A very simple game.”
I hold my tongue.
“Sit comfortably. Close your eyes.”
“Can I lean like this?” he asks, slouching against the wall.
She nods. “Close your eyes. Relax.”
I sink into my seat. My side aches.
“Now, just breathe.”
I can see the darkness behind my eyes, light flickering from the window. Outside water drips from the ice on the roof.
Leslie has adopted a calm monotone: “As thoughts cross your mind, let them go.”
This is ridiculous, I think. It's too late for all this. We're not kids anymore, we are old people. Old and ill.
“Just let your thoughts go, let them pass through your mind and fade away,” our daughter says.
But I don't want to let my thoughts go. I snap my eyes open and see both of them there, Leslie with her hands on her crossed legs, Allen sitting against the wall, legs straight and eyes closed. I grip my knees. None of it will go. I will not let go of a single thought, a single second. I sit in the quiet with them, watching my husband and my child breathe. A car passes by on the street out front. For a moment, no one moves.
© Nate Beyer 2013
Nate Beyer's writing has appeared online in Dark Sky Magazine, The Adirondack Review, and Artsfuse.com. In 2012, he was awarded an Emerging Artist Grant from the St.Botolph's Club Foundation. He is a graduate of Boston University's Creative Writing Program and lives in Arlington, Massachusetts with his daughter, Zoe.
Losing Allen was read by Waltrudis Buck for the Age & Beauty Show on 3rd April 2013