The old man was a shriveled lump of dying flesh dumped in a four-wheeled coffin. No telling what condition placed him in that wheelchair; it may have been one of many, or maybe a combination of some.
The old man’s ratty hair defied the comb. His rotting body oozed an odor no bath could wash away. His flesh, eaten bare by time, resembled the skeleton of a beached fish that had been picked-clean by seagulls. His wrinkled, half-buttoned, sleeveless shirt and frayed, urine-stained shorts smacked of the Salvation Army secondhand store. Defeat lined his weathered face. His sunken eyes begged he die, and soon.
His nature seemed as vile as his looks. We came upon each other once. As we drew closer, he scowled, and ducked his head toward the ground. “Hurry up,” he said to the lawn passing by, and lit a cigarette. She hunched over, pushed harder, and smiled wearily at me as they passed. When they disappeared around the corner of the apartment complex, I heard him growl, “Next time turn around and go another way.”
“Why? He looks okay to me,” she said.
“He’s youth, life, health;” he coughed and spit, “Got good looks; everything I’m not. To him I’m a freak.”
“He’s fine, you read too much into things.”
“Shut up and get moving,” he snapped at her, he coughed again and flipped the butt at the nearest tree.
“Oh, come on now,” she said, “You’re just an old junk yard dog turned mean.”
He said, “I told you to shut up, let’s get going,” and he coughed again.
They avoided me after that.
Why did he appear to resent her? Was it his impatience with slow death that chose her selfless kindness to be the jailer of his fate? Gratitude must have been too much to bear from a dying heart that was ready to quit. Once he might have been reliable, honorable, a loving father and husband, a good earner. Now, all he had left was her loyalty, medications, treatments, waiting, and then death. Although I never talked to him, I wondered if he was bitter about all that went wrong in his life.
I doubt he acknowledged that his wife was all that went right. Once, when I saw her wheeling him to their car, I imagined her saying to herself, ‘‘Til death do us part. Til death do us part. Til death…” When the time came, the kids would come from back East to see about the will, and she would get stuck with the funeral bill. Until then, she pushed, and absorbed his abuse.
Taking care of him full time had to be a tough task for the old woman. For years behind his wheelchair, she must have performed many of her daily routines numbed by habit to ease her chores less stressful. Months passed before I saw them again. Then, I spotted her wheeling him to the car at a trot. She anxiously stuffed him in his seat, quickly folded and heaved the chair in the trunk, and she drove off in a hurry, “They got money, they can afford it,” their second-floor neighbor said.
“Afford what?” I said
“A nursing home, but he won’t go. I think the old fart wants her to suffer right along with him.”
“What’s he got?” I said.
“You name it; diabetes, three heart attacks, four stints, rheumatoid arthritis, he’s eighty-five and still smokes; the list goes on.” Her parking spot remained empty for four days. Then I saw her pull up alone; I knew then, he had died. She grabbed her purse from the passenger seat. I imagined that the cushions had been molded in that seat by his slight frame, its fabric worn thin from years of waiting for her to finish her chores until the seat had become an inside-out cloth cocoon from which, by dying, he had escaped.
Sometimes, patterns of behavior refuse to break after the dead leave the living behind.
She slowly walked to the trunk, ready to drag out and unfold his chair. I think that she was even less enthused she would have to come around to his side after that, lift him from the car and stuff him in his mobile coffin. Then, she stopped, grabbing the trunk lid to steady herself. She stared into the emptiness a few seconds, and then became abruptly aware there was no wheel chair and no body to fill it. She glanced my way, and I saw in her grief a glimpse of relief that her habits, and his memory would in time fade away.
Then, she shut the lid and walked away.