“King me, Morty old boy!” Wally said, mockingly rubbing his hands together. Mortimer, or Morty, as he was known in the wing, pressed his lips together, annoyed. The black and red checker board now flooded with Wally’s red chips. Morty’s black army had dwindled down to the last remaining few. It was the third game they played, the two before that, Wally also won – each time with the same bullying attitude. It gave him pleasure watching Morty squirm in his seat, unable to get an upper hand on him.
“Whats the matter Morty? Checkers not your game?” He broke out in a loud chuckle.
“Game ain’t over yet!” Morty said. He knew it wasn’t true, but he had to say something. Sure, the game was still technically in play, but he knew he was toast – it was just a matter of time.
Wally knew it too. It was one of his highlights of game night. Without much to look forward to on most days, game night was something Wally lost himself in. Especially at Morty’s expense. He humiliated him each time they played, because each time, Morty would loose to him. He had yet to beat Wally, always vowing that the next game would be different, but the end result would be the same – a loss.
“Maybe checkers ain’t your thing?” Wally continued, smiling. “Tell you what, next time lets have us a game of go fish, maybe then you’ll have a fighting chance!”
“You’re such an asshole, Wally, you know that?”
“Whoa!” he lifted his hands, like someone caught red handed. “Easy now Morty, easy! I didn’t know you were such a sensitive old codger? If I’d known, I would of asked Mrs. Harris to play instead!” He giggled under his breath.
“Kiss my ass!” Morty said. He rose from his seat, jolting the table as he did, shifting the checker pieces off their squares. “Find yourself another person to play with.” He paused. “Oh, that’s right, last time I checked, nobody likes you! Arrogant prick..”
He stormed off to his quarters cursing at the air.
Wally called out to him, pointing and laughing, making sure everyone in the room noticed. He reveled in it.
The wheelchair was stationed in front of the window overlooking the grounds of the Dixie Valley Retirement Home. Wally sat motionless, only his eyes scanned back and forth. Down below, staff members walked arm in arm with their patients across the green landscape – it was time for their daily walk. The sky was cloudy and gray, the trees swayed back and forth. Their leaves rustled with the wind, making a showering sound across the property. Wally would of been on one of those walks, strolling around the grounds with Claudette, his caretaker. Claudette was a large black woman, who was always jolly and in good spirits. They got along splendidly and Wally looked forward to flirting and complimenting her. He enjoyed it in his old age, and Claudette welcomed his flirtatious ways. She was as large as a house, barely fitting into her hospital scrubs. She was in her mid-forties and her looks had run away from her years ago – pounds ago. But she was a real sweetheart, and kept Wally going. He hadn’t had someone give him any kind of affection since Martha divorced him over twenty years ago. He would take it were he could get it – even if it was role playing with a larger than life caretaker.
A sparrow flew overhead, spreading his wings wide and descended on a swaying branch of a willow tree. It zig-zagged the outstretched branch, disappearing into a hollow opening in the bark. Wally wondered if it had hatch lings inside that hole, all of them stretching their necks out like a whack-a-mole game, mouths open from hunger. He grinned with pleasure from the corner of his mouth. Pleasure was something he didn’t experience much these days – not since the stoke.
He had been on one of his daily walks when it happened. Claudette walked beside him, laughing at his wacky sense of humor. Wally asked her why the gods would send someone as beautiful as her into his life – that always put a smile on her face. He proposed his love playfully to her, and in return, she told him to stop before he got what he’d been asking for. They both laughed.
Then it happened.
Suddenly and quickly. One minute they exchanged a flirtatious smile – the next, he was face down on the hot asphalt. The doctor said he was lucky to be alive, but he was going to have a long road to recovery. His entire left side was paralyzed, his left eyelid drooped down as if he was drowsy. His lips hung down on one side like a sac with too much water in it. It drooled constantly.
It occurred in April, and he’d been bedridden for five months at Dixie County General Hospital. This was his second week back at the retirement home. He returned a shell of who he used to be. Once a witty and obnoxious seventy-five year old, now, he lay immobilized and dependent on twenty-four hour care. His friends would visit, staring not at Wally, but at something hardly alive. Something that laid there – helpless and a burden. His wit turned to self-loathing. His obnoxious probes became mute. His flirtatious ways became non-existent. He existed, but now, he merely took up precious oxygen.
His Children thought it best to have Claudette stay on as his caretaker during his recovery. Their father had spiraled into a deep depression, isolating himself, not wanting to talk to anyone. He stopped responding to them – to everyone. He turned into a mute log, staring off blindly into nothingness, wishing the stroke had done away with him. Claudette happily agreed to stay on and help in his recovery. But when she saw Wally laying in his bed, her heart broke. He was different person, non-responsive and downcast. She caressed his head with her hand, and smiled at her favorite patient.
He did not acknowledge her.
It seemed to him the world had forgotten him. He existed, he had a beating heart, flesh and bled like everyone one else. Yet he felt dead, buried six-feet deep, like those poor bastards in the cemetery down the road. If it wasn’t for a staff and Claudette collecting a paycheck every two weeks, he began to doubt any of them would ever bother coming in to feed him or sit him in his chair.
The sparrow reappeared from its dwelling place, zigged-zagged up the same branch, and took flight once again. His eyes followed it attentively until it vanished from his sight.
The door opened, Claudette walked in wearing red scrubs, pushing a wooden cart with his lunch on it. Under the plastic plate cover, a boneless piece of fish sat in its own juices. A side of vegetables and a cup of lemon flavored jello beside it. A small carton of cranberry juice, with a bendable straw poking out of it shook as The cart rolled. One of its wheels was defective causing everything to rattle uncontrollably.
“Lunch time, Mr. Harper”, she said, placing the cart by his bed. She walked over to him, grabbed the handles on the wheel chair and pulled him away from the window to his bed for feeding.
His body swayed with the motion of the chair, but he remained motionless. His eyes were the only thing that moved, his gaze holding onto the view outside until it was no longer visible. His depression had grown worse than he had experienced when he returned from Vietnam in in 1972. Post traumatic stress is what they called it nowadays. But back then, for a thirty year old soldier who had spent ten years in a war where he witnessed things an average man would never see in their lifetime, it was a condition no one could comprehend. He came back scared, not physically – mentally. He had a hard time adapting to normal life, constant nightmares plagued him terribly for years. But he eventually overcame it, not completely, but enough to function on a daily basis. But now he was a seventy-five, not nearly as old as some of the others that lived at the home. Not nearly as young either – some were in there eighties, some in their sixties. But they all weren’t dead weight like he was.
“Let’s have some of this delicious fish, shall we?” she said. “Then well take a stroll outside, how does that sound?”
He remained silent.
“Oh come now,” she insisted. “How longer are we going to be a grumpy little thing? You are alive and recovering Mr. Harper! You’ll see, you will be up and showing those checker playing fools what for in no time!”
Drool rimmed the edge of his hanging, paralyzed lip. She reached for a napkin tucked in her breast pocket, and gently wiped it before it had a chance to run-off.
“Sandy is visiting this afternoon. Isn’t that good news?”
He supposed he should be happy. Sandy was the only one out of his three children that visited him frequently. The other two, Wally Jr and Gregory, would visit once a month. Sometimes none at all. But he had lost the will to want to see anybody. He did not expect anything positive or hopeful. Things had been this was for some time. No matter what how much Dr. Darwi tried to instill hopefulness in him, his mind no longer registered it. He expected nothing but bad things to happen from this point on. But still, deep down inside, deep where no shrink could ever dig into, was this small part that desired it. Hope that one day he’ll begin to get the feeling back in his left side, or that he would accept the obvious and make the best of things, enjoying whatever life he had left for him. He wanted to enjoy his kids, to embrace them fully once again. He hoped to play checkers just one more time – heck – he’ll even let old Morty win one. He hoped to make Claudette blush and not look at him the way she did now – with burdened eyes. No, he couldn’t. he was too far gone in his despair. Life, god, karma seemed to hate him, and he began to feel the same way towards every single one of them.
“Okay now,” Claudette continued. “Lets get some of this deliciousness in you!” He watched her as she carefully sliced through one corner of the fish with the plastic fork, scooping a chunk onto it.
“Open up now”, she said.
His lips did not move, but they didn’t resist being fed. She snickered at him, pushing the fork gently in his mouth. The juices, mostly water, ran to the back of his throat and descended down his esophagus. The fish was soaked and fell apart as he slowly chewed it. If it tasted like anything, he could not enjoy it. Even that had been ripped from him, the ability to taste and savor something as simple as lunch.
“Is that good? How is that?”
She exhaled, a slight frustration on her expression. She leaned in and fixed her eyes on his.
“Life isn’t over yet Mr. Harper. I know its very hard to see it, but it isn’t.” Her sympathy for him broke through, but his hardness quickly chased it away. She scooped up some vegetables and fed them to him.
“I’m gonna make you talk yet, if its the last thing I do”, she said. “I wish you would believe your favorite girl. I still am your favorite girl, right Mr. Harper?”
She smiled. “You will regain function again, things take time Mr. Harper. Your not the only one who’s had this unfortunate thing happen to them. Take Mr. Livingston, from the east wing, he had a stroke about five years ago – just like you. And look at him now, up and about like it never happened! In time, you’ll come to realize that your body knows what its doing.”
She was right. But depression is a hell of a thing. One tells himself they can control it. That they can turn it off like a light switch. After all, isn’t everything mind over matter? Perhaps in the beginning it might of been, when one could sense it coming on. Maybe then, something could be done about it. Claudette wiped his mouth, and continued to feed him without further conversation. She understood how things had to be sometimes. She had been through it before, and patience, along with time healed all wounds. For now, broad strokes would have to do. She would throw out the occasional dabs of hope, knowing not every word would sink in, but maybe one would linger in his mind when he was laid still in the darkness of night.
“Okay, done.” She said, placing the napkin on the empty plate. “Well head outside for your stroll as soon as your food has time to digest. Sound good?” When he did not reply, she sighed again. Not with frustration, but with empathy. “Would you like to go back to your window?” She didn’t expect him to answer, she just couldn’t help it.
His eyes lifted off from the emptiness, and slowly fixed on hers. It was something he hadn’t done before. Claudette was surprised, but held her emotions from being exposed. She took it as progress – confirmation that her encouragement was paying off. It wasn’t major by any means, but it was something that finally indicated change. She smiled, finding no need for him to say anything – she understood. She pushed the wheel chair towards the window, turning him, so he had the best view of the outside.
“Ill be back soon.” She tapped him on the shoulder gently, and exited the room.
His eyes watered, one of them finding its way over the rim of his eyelid, running down the side of his face. He raised his right hand, it felt like years since he had moved it. He wiped it, removing any trace of it ever being there. He looked at his hand, it looked strange and foreign to him. It moved – untouched by the horror that plagued his entire left side. Hope, he thought. There is still life in him yet. Maybe Claudette was right, maybe he just had to real-
He looked at his dead left hand resting on his lap.
He tried moving it, forgetting for a moment that anything was wrong with it – but it didn’t budge. He took in a deep, silent breath. His exhale was just as silent. Reality tried to escape him, tried to convince him that some of the things Claudette had said, had real weight to them. But the lifeless hand that laid on his lap (his entire left side for that matter) brought things crashing down again. But for whatever it was worth, he appreciated feeling hopeful again – even if it was just for a moment.
A tapping sound came from the window. Wally looked – it was the sparrow. It hopped along the window sill, back and forth, peering inside. His head tilted and jerked with curiosity, pecking on the glass randomly. He looked at it, captivated. It was as if they knew each other. He had been watching it for weeks, ascending and descending like clockwork each time. Maybe birds were smarter than humans made them out to be. It fixed his gaze on him, remaining still for a long time. Wally looked back at it just the same.
“Do you have baby birds back in your hole?” he said softly. “Are they waiting for you to feed them?”
The sparrow cocked his head sideways, as if understanding what he said.
“Well go on, fly to them! They need you more than I do.”
The sparrow looked on for a moment, then turned with one hop and flew away. He watched it as it made its way down to his branch, landing and leaping into its hole. He smiled as he watched him disappear, imagining his hatch lings springing their heads up eagerly for her.
He looked at their tree for a long time, then lowered his right hand on his lap. His smile returned to a mute position, slumping slightly, shrouded with melancholy.