FREE FICTION

When Hayes takes his elderly father on a day pass to a ballpark, he knew the task would prove challenging. The drought and a lack of understanding turn the challenge into an ordeal that will reveal more than Hayes bargained for.


I reach into the back of the tiny closet in room 402 of The Pines Assisted Living Resort and tug on the only piece of luggage my father owns. It’s sad, really. Once a world traveler, only the best of high-end cases and carry-ons would suit him. But for the final leg of his journey, we’d kept only this one piece, which is refusing to come into the light of day.

“God didn’t make a deal with you, Pop,” I say to him. He glares at me from the vinyl-covered recliner where he waits for his aide.

When I was a kid, I’d looked forward to Dad arriving home after one of his business trips. I’d wait out on the sidewalk in the summers or draped over the back of the sofa staring out the picture window during the winters with my red plastic-handled safety scissors in eager anticipation of cutting off the airport luggage tags to add to my scrapbook collection. Places I’d never been to, and likely would never see in my lifetime. Dad would describe these mystical cities in great detail over Mom’s standard welcome-home meal of meatloaf, fried potatoes, and homemade applesauce.


In my eight-year-old brain, these were mysterious lands filled with the grandest of dragons and knights and damsels in distress.

But really, they were the destinations my engineer father traveled to “to better the world with sustainable solutions for agriculture and aquatic needs.” Whatever that meant. I’m still not entirely clear. By the time I was ten, I’d memorized all the state-side airport codes. LAX, Los Angles. LGA, LaGuardia in New York City. BNA — my favorite and closest to our rural Tennessee home an hour’s drive from Nashville.


My four sisters and I were well cared for, well fed, and possibly even loved, though Mom’s gears were permanently stuck in single-motherhood survival mode as Dad was gone forty-eight weeks out of the year and many weekends. Several years in a row he was home long enough to create another child for her to care for.


Maybe he didn’t want her to be lonely.


The suitcase topples into the room with us after a tousle with some fallen clothes hangers. No airport tags on this black case. Not many dings on it, either. Every button-up, sweater vest, and tan trousers the old fart owns would easily fit inside. But he won’t need all of his outfits for our weekend pass.


“God didn’t make a deal with you, Pop,” I say again as I toss the case onto his hospital bed and unzip the lid. I reach for a couple of button-ups and a pair of pants that didn’t have coffee stains dripping down the leg.


“Yes. We’ve got a deal. I’ll drink when he sends rain. No rain. No drinking.”


“So, if you lived in Seattle, you’d be urinating in your pants every third hour from over-hydrating?”


Dad laughs. “You don’t understand God.”


“You don’t understand biology.”


Anna walks into the room and hears this exchange. “You know arguing with him won’t do any good.” She reaches into the closet for his slip-on house shoes and slides them into the mesh lining of the suitcase lid.


“Coddling him, won’t either. And this time his health is at risk,” I whisper. Anna has been my father’s memory aide at The Pines since his admission here four years ago. She’s been great. A staple and great source of grounding and orientation for both Dad and me. But this time, she’s dead wrong.


“See, Anna understands God.”


“Yes, Mr. Tandy. I do. But I don’t think he’d mind if you took some juice with your breakfast this morning. Before you leave with Hayes.”


“Who’s Hayes?”


“I’m Hayes, Dad. Your son.”


“I thought you looked familiar. Where’s Karen?” He adjusts his red-framed glasses on his nose.


I sink onto the bed. I knew the weekend would be long if he was having a good spell. This newest obsession with fluid restrictions will definitely put a challenging spin on things. “Karen couldn’t come. She’s got the kids. Your grandkids, Dad.”


He smiles. “I knew I’d have grandkids someday.”


Anna, always patient, hands Dad a silver-framed photo from the dresser. “Here’s Karen. And your grandchildren, see? Do you remember their names?” Dad takes the photo from her and runs his thumb gently over all the faces. My theory is that Karen keeps herself as busy as Mom did popping out kids so as not to deal with anything Dad-related. But it’s just a theory.


Dad hands the photo back to Anna, but he doesn’t buy into the name-your-relative game.


Doesn’t or can’t. I can’t tell.


I hand him an opened bottle of water and he knocks it from my hand.


“When the man upstairs sends water, I’ll drink it.”


Anna pulls me aside into the hallway as she pages for housekeeping to mop up the spill. “He just started this late last night. There’s no danger yet. If he hasn’t drunk anything by tomorrow, he’ll weaken and become more confused.”


“What got this started? He’s never pulled this one before.” He’d pulled plenty of other antics, though. Only wearing green on Sundays. Only eating red foods on Fridays. Always keeping a newspaper to read through the day, never TV. We aren’t even sure if he can read anymore, but the papers are a must, and when we’d visit him midday, we usually find him sitting in his side chair, legs crossed, paper laid across his lap, his red-framed glasses sliding down to the tip of his nose.


“He’d overheard a visiting family yesterday talk about how bad the drought has gotten. How the crops are suffering. We didn’t know he’d been listening. His face lit up, and he started on about irrigation systems and drainage. And how he could fix the aquatic problem.”


I moan. “Well, I guess it makes a little bit of sense. He was an irrigation engineer at one time.” Which had nothing to do with God Almighty—only the genius solutions thought up by the great Franklin Tandy. I’d learned over the years as Dad’s dementia worsened that even the most obtuse thought processes can have some tether to reality—albeit coiled and tangled tethers.


“Hayes, there’s no rain in the forecast for the next few days. We may need your consent to start IV fluids if he persists in this current whim. Keep a close eye on him. Maybe offer him moisture-heavy foods, watermelon and soups and such. And don’t hesitate to take him to the ER. Though that would end with sedation, no doubt.”


The last time Dad had a hospitalization for an acute illness, the ER staff had to call in backup personnel to hold him down. Karen, who has no clue what’s been going on with Dad, not really, wanted to get a judge involved to deal with the “inhumane” treatment Dad had received, since Karen believed he shouldn’t have been hospitalized to begin with. Karen remains clueless regarding all things dementia. If the decision had been up to her, he’d still be living alone in our family home setting fires in the kitchen and walking around the yard naked.


Both of which have happened.


Jen and I got a judge to declare him incompetent shortly thereafter and had power of attorney papers drawn up. We happily left Karen and my other two sisters out of it. Meg and Tonya visit every few months and are happy to have only that simple duty. Karen, drowning in her own four walls’ worth of family, would’ve liked to been involved, but Jen and I can’t deal with her drama.


I didn’t want another sedation fiasco for him. Hopefully, we could get through the weekend without him dropping from dehydration. “Maybe I should cancel the plans until he’s over this.” But I think of the nonrefundable money already spent on our outing. Not that he’s not worth it—he is—but things can get tight this time of year.


“Maybe a change of scenery will make him forget and he’ll get thirsty enough to drink. We’ve seen similar results in other residents when they go on outings. And I’ll label his outfits so there’s no fuss.”


“Label? What do you mean?”


“He likes to wear certain garments on certain days.” Anna follows the housekeeper with mop and bucket into Dad’s room. I watch from the doorway as she happily goes about rearranging and tagging the clothing I’d already packed, tucking in socks and underwear as she went.


I’d promised to take him away for the weekend months ago. A father-son trip, now that he was “retired” and had time to enjoy himself. That was how I’d spun it. Looking back, I think I’d planned this trip out of guilt because Jen has dutifully run point and visited Dad for years. Me, not so much. I’m not too comfortable with the caretaking and only visit once a month or so. Maybe to one-up the other three sisters.


I do take care of the black-and-white tasks of dollar bills and paperwork.


I thought maybe this would give Jen a break. Jen, our family’s stable emotional cup-filler since Mom passed. I thought it might give Dad a break from the home. Mostly, though I thought it might ease my miserable conscious. Three months ago when I’d presented this option to Dad, I thought he’d look forward to a weekend of baseball and some of his favorite barbecue eateries around Nashville. A weekend away from The Pines to have an adventure.


But our weekend, and my name, is fresh news to the great Franklin Tandy on this dry, hot Thursday morning.


#


“Would you mind getting me a paper?” Dad settles himself into the corner booth of the diner.


“We don’t have any papers, sir. No one bought them anymore, so we cut off our subscription service. I can adjust the TV to the news channel.”


“No. Those jokers are all a bunch of liars on the tube. The only true news is printed news.”


I can tell he’s getting riled up. And we are only twenty minutes into our extended weekend pass. I could throw a rock and hit The Pines’ front gate. “Dad, I’ll find you a paper later. Right now, Anna wants us to stay on schedule with your mealtimes. What sounds good?” Throwing Anna’s name around may carry more weight since he can’t remember mine. Or what we’re doing. I slide the plastic-coated, single-page menu in front of him. I’ve no idea how to get his dementia meds down him if he doesn’t drink something. I dig out the baggie of noon medication Anna had handed me back at The Pines. Three tiny pills, the names of which I can’t pronounce.


All I have to do is get him to take a few sips and three tiny pills…


“Can I get you some coffee or water?” The waitress, holey jeans and baggy tee-shirt, stood at the ready with her little ticket book. I hope she’s not in for a show.


“God and I have a deal.” He looks up at her over his glasses. “When he sends rain, I’ll drink.”


Yup. Lunch and a show. This will cost me extra in tips, I can feel it down to my toes. “Do you serve soup?” I ask.


“Vegetable and chili.”


“One of each, two glasses of water, and a cup of fruit.” I figured the more items on the table, the better chance he’d munch, slurp or sip something without realizing it.


“Could you bring me today’s newspaper?” Dad scans the menu and hands it back to our confused waitress who’s about to answer him again, but I interrupt.


“It’s okay.” I try to wink at her, but now I think she must think I’m trying to come on to her. And wouldn’t that be something. She’s young enough to be my daughter.


“Dad, I’m going to have to take you back to The Pines if you don’t take these pills and then we’ll miss our baseball game. So when the nice girl comes back with the waters, I need you to cooperate. Please.”


“I’ve never taken pills a day in my life.” He crosses his arms over his chest, revealing a tiny hole in the armpit of his pale blue sweater vest, and looks out the window. “But I do like baseball. My son does, too.” He stares at a maintenance worker across the street. He follows the man’s movements and seems interested in what he’s doing.


Examining Dad’s profile, I notice the dark age spots dotting his temple and cheek. Faint scuff marks run the length of his eyeglass’s ear piece. His jaw is littered with fine gray stubble and his ear hair needs trimmed—something he’d been meticulous about when he was in his prime. The wrinkles at the corner of his eyes are deeper-set than I remember from my last visit a couple of months ago. Maybe I simply wasn’t paying attention then.


I was only paying my dues.


I follow his gaze out the window, but a dark moving van parking along the sidewalk turns my view of the street into a hazy mirror. I stare at my own profile in the muddled reflection. Crows feet, a faint age spot, and a dotting of my own graying stubble stare back. My stomach knots. Time marches me into my father’s well-forged path whether I choose to go or not.


Dad grins at me when the gal brings our food. A grin I can’t read. Is he happy? Playful? Ornery?


I hand him a spoon, and he plays with the grapes and melon in the fruit bowl but doesn’t eat anything.


“Dad, no baseball if you don’t take—”


“Fine!” He puts the pills in his mouth dry. Chews twice. His eyes tear up when the no doubt bitter pills light up on his tongue. He swallows hard. I push the water toward him, he pushes it back, spilling half of it onto the table, soaking the paper placemats. He stirs the vegetable soup and very carefully drains a spoonful of green beans and a tiny square of pale orange carrot of all broth. He chews this one spoonful, sets down the utensil, and resumes staring out the window.


And that was lunch.


#


“Maybe you’ll want a hot dog at the ballpark this afternoon?” I nestle two bottles of water into the console between us, and I uncap his. The exhibition game starts in an hour, and the way things are going, I’ll need all the extra time to navigate him through the entrance. I’d been looking forward to the game. I’m realizing this was a mistake.


Like when I’d looked forward to taking Jen’s kids fishing when they were first and second graders. I didn’t drown the first worm—my worm dangled dry and crispy at the end of my hook by the time we finished. What I did do was bait, unhook, restring, and untangle.


Over and over again.


The kids had a blast. I had a crash course in keeping children out of a pond.


I won’t be watching baseball today. I’ll be watching Dad. Expectations are awful things. I should learn not to have any.


“Maybe a hot dog.” He reaches for the water bottle, and I try not to react. To not draw attention that I’m paying attention. Like playing with my nieces and nephews, hoping for a certain behavior from a toddler. Mind games. “My son likes baseball.”


I remember what Anna said about arguing. And the bits and pieces of what Jen has told me over the years, but I’d not processed it before. Arguing isn’t going to help. “Yes, Hayes likes baseball, Dad.”


He smiles at me and abandons the water bottle. Not one sip taken.


“I’d like to read a newspaper today.”


“Tell me what day it is, and I’ll see if I can find a current one.” I decide to test him.


“You tell me what day it is.” He grins. More games. Okay.


“You’re wearing blue, so it must be…”


He looks down at his chest and nods. “It’s Thursday.”


“Good. We’ll look for a paper to take with us into the ballpark.”


“Good.”


“Thirsty, Dad?” I tap one of the bottles.


“I’ve made a deal with God, you know. Have I told you about our deal?”


“Yeah, Pop. You’ve told me.”


“Tomorrow I wear red. Tomorrow is Friday.”


I go silent. He goes silent. I focus on the road and the insanity that is my life. I think about that fishing day with Kerri and Hayes, Jen’s two oldest kids named after Aunt Karen and me, Uncle Hayes. She stopped naming her children after family members when those family members started showing their true colors and disappointing the universe with their un-adult-like ways. Little Karen slowly became Kerri. Hayes was stuck with my name, though. I try to be a good uncle. To spend time and do uncle-y things.


Now, thinking back, all my tries seem selfish. I’m not there for them to be there. I’m there to check off an obligatory visit. Like I’ve been doing with Dad.


So I can get back to my job and my dating life and my…


Maybe that’s why I’m not married. The women I date wisely peg me as the selfish obligor that I am and head for the hills. Spreading the word about Hayes Tandy on their way up said hills to all other potential partners.


Maybe it’s best I’m alone.


The sound of Dad’s noggin against the window glass pulls me back to the car. I tug him up a little straighter so he won’t hit his head again. He’s slipped into a sound nap—at least I hope it’s a nap—and his head wobbles down onto his chest, his glasses sliding down his nose and his lips slightly open. I guess the good thing is that he’s not hydrated enough to drool onto his sweater vest.


So I won’t have that mess to clean up.


Selfish.


#


As we pull into the ballpark lot, I smell it. I hope it’s fumes and not solids, but I can’t be sure until I wake him up and pull him from the car.


“Dad, you gotta help me out here.”


“What are we doing here? Where’s that girl of mine?” I’ve no idea who he’s talking about. Maybe Jen. Maybe Anna. More likely Karen, his favorite, albeit incompetent, daughter. “I smell something.”


“You smell you, Dad.”


“Where am I?”


“At the ballpark, Pop. Come on, stand up.” He’s weak and paler than when I’d loaded him into the car at the diner. And as he stands, I see he’s had a true accident when he turns his back to me and leans on the door frame. A faint, dark stain is spreading across his rear end.


I moan. I’d asked Anna about this. She assured me toileting wasn’t an issue, so I didn’t expect this.


Expect. Here I go again.


“Dad, I don’t think we’re gonna make it to the game today. We need to get you somewhere to clean up.” I glance around. We’re in the middle of a parking lot that’s filling fast. Bright blue portable cesspools line the far edge of the parking lot. “No way.”


He starts to get back into the car, but I take his arm and face him toward me, shutting the car door behind him. “No, wait. I need to put something down on the seat first.” I lean him back on the hood of the car gently, trying not to think of what I might be smashing in his boxers and against my paint job.


“My son likes baseball. Do you think there’s a paper somewhere?”


I ignore his comment and pop the trunk where I have an emergency stowed. That’s what I’d learned while dating Pam, the ski instructor. Always be prepared. Even for a Nashville blizzard. I wasn’t prepared for that breakup. Or to hear her tell me I needed to work on my people skills. Red flags everywhere and I didn’t pay attention to my role in anything.


I dump the contents out next to his black suitcase. I find the mylar emergency blanket and break it out of its package. It’s much larger than I expected, and the slight breeze takes the lightweight silver material and flops it around my legs and the bumper.


Baseball fans and their families stare at this oddity.


As they drive by looking for a parking space.


As they exit their vehicles and make their way across the lot.


To scale those steps toward the ballpark and enjoy an afternoon of America’s greatest pastime. A game I most certainly won’t see.


And no hot dogs, either.


They watch as I untangle myself from the blanket, sweat pouring from everywhere and wad the mess under my arm. I salute to one gawking teenager and he quickens his steps.


I open Dad’s car door and tuck the rattling material around the seat and down between the edges. Dad’s dazed. As if he could fall asleep right there leaning against the car. It’s too warm for him to be wearing so many layers. Especially since he’s not drinking.

While he’s standing, I decide to lighten his clothing a bit. “Here Dad, raise your arms.”


He jars his eyes from their haze and meets mine. I remove his glasses from his face and tuck one earpiece into the front of my shirt, letting the red spectacles dangle from my tee. I guide his arms into the air.


I take the rim of the sweater vest, ready to pull it over his head, but he brings his arms down hard, knocking my hands away when the vest is halfway up his torso. “No! I wear blue on Thursdays.”


“It’s hot. You’re a soiled mess. Let me help you.”


“I dress myself, young man.” He starts to unbutton his trousers. I grab his hands. He wrestles against me, pulling away. He’s not a weak man, not in this moment anyway.


I feel an audience growing behind me, real or imaginary, I dare not look. I hear muffled conversations and shoes padding slowly. Then padding quickly. More muffles. I imagine the phone cameras recording, sending this pathetic parking lot interaction viral by midnight.


I beg now. Plead. “Dad. No. Get in the car, and we’ll find a place to…”


“No!” He turns so quickly that I can’t catch him, my feet tangled in a dangling piece of mylar blanket that I didn’t get tucked all the way under the car seat. I trip, falling hard to my knees. The asphalt’s heat slaps me in the face before I register the pain in my patella.


My fall has also broken the lenses out of Dad’s glasses. The empty red frames glare at me from the blacktop.


When I dare to look up, Dad is several parking spaces away, between a red-neck rusty green pickup and a yellow Prius. “Pop, no!”

Before I can stand, Dad drops his drawers—boxers and all. The edge of his worn-out sweater vest lacks an inch of covering his worn-out manhood. A combo platter of rage and pity well up in me simultaneously.


Then I hear the siren.


#


Some well-meaning and slightly concerned onlooker dialed 911, thinking me an abuser. Or elder abductor.


After clearing up our story with the cops and the EMTs, and after they did their due diligence calling The Pines and corroborating my tale, they got to work on Dad. I warned them he’d become belligerent if they tried to make him drink. They tried anyway.


I’d retrieved Dad’s case from the trunk and handed it over to the EMT for a change of clothes. I figure I’ll let them handle this part. Maybe he’ll cooperate with these strangers better than with me.


I’m a stranger. Maybe a familiar one, but a stranger nonetheless.


I stand at Dad’s side as he sits on the tailgate of the ambulance. The engine is running and ice-cold air pours out of the back and envelopes my legs. It has to feel good to Dad too, if he can still process that kind of thing.


“Is there anything I can do for you?” I brush the firefighter’s offer aside. My knees will heal. My pride won’t.


The EMT offers my father a bottle of water, and he knocks it from the man’s hand. I limp a few steps into the parking lot to pick up the bottle. How awful this disease process is.


I watch as Dad cooperates while the EMTs clean him up. I watch as they dress him from the waist down. I watch as they dab the brown stains from the back of his sweater vest, and how they let him keep it on to avoid a meltdown.


I admire their patience and thoughtfulness. Their skill. Their nonjudgmental way of handling such a mess.


I admire these qualities I’m greatly lacking in.


Dad needs much more care than I can give him even on a dumb weekend pass. Or that Jen could even provide. He’s full-time care. Dad likely never realized he’d left The Pines’ grounds.


I look down at my knees. One bloody. One bruised. I fumble with his glasses and realize that I need to allow the ambulance to transport him back to the Pines. The time for making memories and meaningful connections expired long ago. And I’m the biggest loser on the planet.


I hear one EMT beg my father to drink and a slight threat to start an IV if he doesn’t. This won’t end well. I have an idea.

The firefighter heads back to his rig. I call after him. “Hey, wait.”


“Yessir?”


“Can you make it rain?”


#


I settle Dad into his bed after Anna dresses him in his blue Thursday night pajama bottoms and white tank top. Our extended weekend pass lasted less than twenty-four hours.


I hand him the newspaper I’d stopped for while the EMTs fiddled with him in the ambulance.


Anna hands him a plastic lidded mug with a straw. I hear the ice sloshing around inside. “That’s amazing, what you did for him today.”


She wouldn’t think it amazing if she knew all the doubts and negativity I was battling.


“The firefighters were awesome,” I whisper. They’d positioned their truck behind the ambulance and shot water over the top. Dad brightened up, praising God above for the rain and drank two bottles of water before even leaving the parking lot. I’d stood there, a grown man in his right mind—at least I think I’m in my right mind—and cried as the bright sun painted a rainbow against the hose’s shower over the ambulance. Cried as I watched my Dad experience an end to the drought. Cried as I realized he’ll likely not remember this tomorrow.


I’ll visit him more often. Help out Jen more. Now that I’ve seen. Now that I know better.


I situate the lens-less glasses on his wrinkled, happy face and try not to cry for the second time today. He takes a long sip from the straw. I pat Dad’s face and feel his stubble. Anna promises me he’ll be shaved tomorrow. I rub my face. I need a shave too.


I say my goodbyes after I tuck his now-empty black suitcase into the back of the closet and run my hands over his row of button-ups and holey sweater vests. When I look back at the bed, Dad is staring at the upside-down paper through broken glasses.


As I walk down the hallway past other rooms I wonder how bad off the other residents are. How screwed up their families might be. I wonder why no one cares that the hall smells like day-old diapers.


Panic seizes in my chest. I wonder if dementia is in my future.


I wonder what home my extended family will throw me into. If it will smell like diapers or if I’ll even have a sense of smell. The ugly picking-the-home job will likely fall to worn-out Jen or maybe to my namesake nephew. I hope to God it doesn’t fall to Karen. She’ll let me wander the streets naked and soiled, the whole time telling me I’m not nuts.


Anna calls after me, “Have a good weekend, Mr. Tandy. And don’t worry about your dad. I’ll take good care of him.” I nod my thanks. I wonder who my Anna will be.


I shove my hands into my shorts’ pockets and feel the two unused baseball tickets.


I toss the tickets into the garbage can outside of The Pines’ entrance and wonder what color of sweater vest I’ll demand to wear on any given Thursday.


Thank you for hanging out for a bit. Check back on the first week of every month for a free fictional short, and be sure to visit my Amazon page.

Copyright © 2019 by B.A. Paul
This work is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed herein are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This work, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.