Note: Last week I posted a quick piece called “Watching. Waiting.” I didn’t particularly like it at the time. I’m coming to actually hate it. A friend pointed out that the core element of an old man watching cable news to help loosen his connection to life was wrong-headed. It was also ungenerous and mean.
This is another take. I hope it is more generous and more kind.
Ronny Hulsing woke early. At his age, there was no luxury or prize for staying in bed until the sun came up. The days were short enough and any one of them could be his last.
He struggled to free his legs from the tangle of blanket, trying to ignore the ripe bloom of stink that came out when he lifted the covers. The indignities of old age, so much harder to bear than the myriad aches and pains that settled into every joint and fissure.
Getting himself moving took a bit of work but it had become his life’s work and he wasn’t going to give up yet.
In the far corner of his bedroom, the shadowy figure of a man stood waiting. Always waiting.
Ronny put on his glasses.
“Ah. You’re still there, then? Didn’t sneak off in the middle of the night? No place you’d rather be?”
The shape watched him, unsmiling, unsympathetic.
“Well, you might as well make yourself useful. Come give me a hand. I’m not moving as free and easy as I used to.”
The man-shaped shadow came to Ronny’s bedside, offering his hand.
Ronny batted the hand away. He knew better than to take that offered hand. He knew instinctively that he wanted no part of that icy grip.
“I can manage. I can manage,” Ronny grumbled. And he pushed himself out of bed with a good goddammit. “Gotta whiz. Then breakfast.”
Ronny shuffled to the bathroom door, gripping his walker tight for fear of tripping over his own mutinous feet. His heart was good. His mind clear. His vitals all in order. His mutinous feet were the problem. Always getting tangled up, threatening to topple him like an old growth tree.
Ronny entered the bathroom. The shadow followed. “A little privacy, please.”
The shadow waited outside the bathroom door.
The indignities multiply.
After managing his morning pee, Ronny makes the slow, shuffling trek to the kitchen. Making breakfast was the hardest chore of the day. His unsteady hands found it difficult to measure the proper amount of coffee grounds. Some nights the home health nurse filled the basket and tank before leaving so it would be ready for him just to switch on in the morning. Ashley, the last girl, had been good for that. And Kimberly, the girl before that. But now there was a new girl and she didn’t know the details of how he liked things done. Home health was brutal business. They never stayed long enough to get properly acquainted and properly trained.
Ronny’s hands shook bad today and he had to focus extra careful to get the grounds into the filter. He nearly spilled the whole thing dropping the filter into the basket. Ronny carried the carafe to the sink to fill it with water. He saw the shadow figure from the corner of his eye. Standing. Watching. Somehow mocking with his humorless stare.
“I see you there. You could help a man out. Make enough coffee for the both of us.”
The figure just stared with those patient, lidless, unblinking eyes.
Ronny sighed. “No? Okay. But you don’t get any coffee.”
Ronny filled the carafe, then shuffled to pour the water into the coffee maker to percolate.
“Toast neither,” Ronny told him. He pressed two slices of bread into the toaster and pressed to brown.
“Don’t you never say anything? Its very rude. Just standing in a man’s house like that, watching him do all the work. Just waiting for him to —“
Ronny didn’t finish the thought. He had the sudden memory of his wife, Abigail, standing in that very same spot in the kitchen, watching him make breakfast. Except she had been smiling. Her tired, worn cancer treatment smile. The smile she had worn to keep herself living on the outside while she was busy dying on the inside.
Ronny nearly lost his legs. He had ventured too far from his walker and had to catch himself against the sink. Breathing was hard work. A bit like mountain climbing. He felt weak from too much exertion and the air seemed unhelpfully thin.
“Not yet, you bastard.” Ronny panted.
The toast leapt up but he wasn’t as much in the mood anymore.
He waited a while to catch his breath. Truth be told, his breath caught him.
Either way, Ronny settled down and his strength returned enough to attempt the morning coffee pour. He splashed a bit out of the mug but that couldn’t be helped. He was mostly just glad he hadn’t burned himself. Yet. He still had to make the trip from kitchen to the arm chair in the living room where he liked to take his coffee.
Ronny balanced one hand on his walker, balanced the coffee in the other and went on his way.
“Out of my way. No fair standing in the middle of the kitchen, trying to trip me up. Make me fall.”
The figure stepped out of Ronny’s way. Ronny walked by, trying not to notice the chill that bloomed in his bones as he passed. He would need the entire cup of coffee and maybe another to take that graveyard chill away.
Ronny found his chair, careful to set his coffee down on the side table before sitting himself.
“Busy day planned today?” Ronny laughed to himself. “Feel free to leave anytime you like. I’ll be right here for you when you get back. No rush. No worries.”
The absurdity pained Ronny but he tried to push it back with humor. “You never laugh,” Ronny observed. “You stand there, oh so serious. But its all actually quite funny.”
If the shadow figure agreed, it gave no sign.
“I miss my Abigail. Miss her so much it hurts. There’s a lot of me that’s ready to go be with her and yet there’s a lot that isn’t in any hurry at all.”
Ronny studied the figure. “That’s funny, right?”
The apparition shrugged.
Ronny took a long draught of his coffee. Enjoyed the warm spread of it filling his chest and stomach. He reached for the TV remote. Turned on the morning cable news show. His morning dose of calamity, political chicanery and general inhumanity. Interrupted occasionally by commercials for term life insurance, reverse mortgages and Metamucil.
“You may as well have a seat, friend. I’m telling you. I’m not going anywhere until I am good and ready.”