Authors: Michael Zadoorian
We started getting late-night calls from her second husband, Leonard, a gentle, easily defeated man, pleading for our help. After she ended up in the nursing home (and this was the early days of nursing homes, where they had the genuine look of hell to them), John said he would never end up in one of those places, made me swear that I would never put him in one, no matter what happened to him. He told me that he would kill himself first, if he ever thought he was going senile.
It was about a year ago when I started finding the gun stashed in strange places in our house—sock drawer, kitchen cupboard, magazine rack—I was terrified. I’d ask him about it, but he never knew how it got there. The problems were getting worse then, and I knew that people in his condition tend to think everyone’s after them, so I hid the gun for good. He kept asking me if I’d seen it, sometimes three or four times a day. Then he just seemed to forget about it. I was relieved until a few months later when I found a half-written suicide note stuffed between the pages of one of his favorite Louis L’Amour books,
The Proving Trail
. I couldn’t decipher a lot of it, but I
got the gist. As you can imagine, it was pretty upsetting. But how upset should you get over a suicide note where the person seems to lose interest in the middle?
As I’ve said before, these days, John only occasionally realizes that he is losing his mind. I think that’s when he asks about his gun. This is the evil, damnable, and lucky thing about his sickness. By the time he finds the gun, he has forgotten what he wanted it for.
“I’ve seen it, John, but I just can’t remember where it is.”
“Is it in the van?”
“I don’t know, John. I just can’t remember things like I used to. You know how that is.” I glance at him, and he seems satisfied at this explanation.
“Look at that, John,” I say, pointing to the side of the road at the telephone poles, splintered and crooked, that have been following the road for some time. This line of drunken soldiers has suddenly veered off to the right out of sight.
“Where do you suppose they’re headed to?”
John says nothing. I know he’s still thinking about that gun while he can, before his mind hits the reset button. Stiffly, I chatter on, trying to fill the air, fill his head, with words. “I read about those poles in my guidebooks,” I say. “The telephone lines are following an old alignment of Route 66, but there’s no road there now. There are a lot of different old stretches of the highway. They kept changing it over the years. Sometimes the road goes though towns that don’t even exist anymore.”
John nods, but not at me blathering on about forgotten
roads leading to phantom towns. He is having one of his arguments with himself, telling off whomever it was that stole his gun. He’s following his own forgotten road.
I’m wishing the wandering line of phone poles would return because I want to follow them, find out where they would take us. A ghost town sounds good to me, a fine place to set up shop. I roll down my window a little farther, pull off my cap, and drag a brush through my hair. The bristles scratch my scalp, but it feels good. I pull the greasy strays, the opaque flecks of skin from the brush and release them into the wind. I rummage through the glove box until I find a rubber band, which I use to make a short pigtail. This is how I will wear my hair now, I decide, thinning or not. I put the hat behind the seat. I’m tired of looking eccentric. I have not lived an eccentric life.
“Mother, where are you?”
I’m talking to my frantic son this morning. I had John stop for a moment in Miami, Oklahoma, to take a quick look at a beautiful old theater there, the Coleman. (It put me in mind of the Vanity Ballroom off Jefferson Avenue in Detroit, where I used to go dancing during the war. Me and three girlfriends along with dozens of other girls and their girlfriends, and a few 4-F fellas pleased with the odds.) When we drove past, I spied a phone booth and decided to call.
“We’re in Oklahoma, Kevin.”
“Everyone is so worried about you two. I’m going to fly out there and pick you up.”
I have steeled myself for this battle. “No, you’re not. Your father and I are having a wonderful time, but we don’t wish you were here.”
Kevin takes a long breath and exhales loudly through his mouth. I can feel his shoulders slump, right over the phone. “Mom, we are very close to calling the police and filing a Missing Persons report.”
Kevin!” I mean it, too.
He sighs. “Mom. This is crazy. Why are you doing this?”
“Dear. Because we want to. It’s so nice to be traveling again, I can’t tell you.”
“Really?” he says, his tone changing, allowing a hint of enthusiasm. But a moment later, his voice grows frantic again. “Wait, wasn’t there some kind of problem with the van? Something with the exhaust manifold?”
“Oh, we got that fixed ages ago, honey.”
“Are you sure?” he says, not quite believing me. “That could be dangerous.”
“Don’t worry, Kevin. Everything’s working just the way it should be.”
He sighs again, even louder this time. I don’t mean for this to be hard on him, but Kevin is forever upset about something. Even when he was a child, he was always sad or guilty or crying about something. Cindy took care of herself. Kevin was the sensitive one. You learn these things about your chil
dren: their personalities reveal themselves the moment out of the womb.
I suppose he was a mama’s boy, but I can’t say I cared. I wished he didn’t cry so much, but I was glad when he came to me for comfort. Yet John would get so upset with him. He was afraid the world would eat him alive, and he was right. Bullies could spot Kevin six blocks away. He was always coming home with something broken, something stolen, something thrown in the mud. John tried to toughen him up—pep talks, boxing lessons—but it never seemed to take. He kept trying to get Kevin to not be afraid, to put up his dukes, but it was no use. Those dukes were down.
Even now, Kevin tells me stories about the company where he works, a place that distributes replacement engine parts for one of the Big Three, how his coworkers take advantage of him, bully him. Some things never change.
“You gotta come home, Mom. Are you taking your medications?”
“Of course I am.” This is mostly the truth.
“Oh Mom.” Another sigh.
So now, I’ve had it. “Damn it, Kevin. Stop being such a sad sack. We’re not coming home. What do you want me to come home to? More doctor appointments? More treatments? More drugs? I take so many right now, they’re going to turn me into a dope addict. No. There will be no coming home. Do you understand?”
One final sigh. “Yes. I understand.”
“Good. Now, how’s Arlene and the boys?”
A pause. “They’re good. How’s Dad? Is he okay?”
“He’s fine, honey. He’s driving great and he’s doing really well. Don’t worry so much about us. We need to do this.”
“Okay. Just be careful.”
I see John futzing around with something in the van across the street and think I need to get over there pretty quick.
“Bye-bye. Give our love to everyone.”
I hang up in time to watch John start to put the van in gear. For the love of Christ, I think he’s going to drive away without me. The Leisure Seeker lurches forward a few feet, and I scream John’s name as loudly as I can. People on the street stop and look at me. I want to run, but I can’t run. My knees won’t do it. I wave my cane at the van.
“Someone please stop that truck!” I screech.
A young man wearing mechanic’s overalls comes up to me. The patch over his right pocket reads
. His hands are filthy, but he’s got a kind smile and he speaks gently to me. “Do you need help, ma’am?”
“Yes. Could you run up to that van and tell the man to wait for me?”
Without even looking both ways, the young man runs off into the street toward the van, which is moving slowly down the street. But before he gets around to the driver’s side, the van stops. He disappears around the side, so I can’t see what’s going on, but I hightail it across the street, as much as I can hightail it.
Once I get to the passenger door, the young man is talking
to John through the window. “It’s fine, ma’am,” he says. “He wasn’t going anywhere. May I give you a hand?” He opens the door for me.
“Thank you so much, Mal. You’re a doll.”
Mal smiles at me, offers me a filthy hand, and I gladly accept it. I notice the patch over his left pocket as he helps me up. It’s a Phillips 66 insignia. I guess The Road provides. I step up into the van, close the door, and wave. I wait until we’re a good ways down the street before I speak.
“What are you,
?” I scream at John. “You going to take off without me? Where are you going to go? What are you gonna do? You’d be lost without me, you goddamned idiot.” I feel my blood pressure rising. “Where were you going to go? Huh? Tell me. What? You stupid asshole.”
John looks at me, a mixture of anger and befuddlement. “I wasn’t going anywhere. I just thought I heard a noise, so I drove forward for a couple of feet. For Christ’s sake, I wouldn’t take off without you.”
“Well, you goddamn well better not. Crazy old man.”
“Up yours,” says John.
I grab a Kleenex from our dispenser and wipe my hand. “Up your own.”
No one says anything for the next dozen or so miles. After that, John turns to me and smiles. “Hi, honey,” he says, putting his hand on my knee.
This little greeting is something we’ve always done, shorthand for “I’m glad you’re here,” “You’re dear to me,” or some
thing to that effect. Whatever it means, I am not in the mood for it right now. I move my knee out of reach.
“Go to hell.”
“I’m still mad at you.” I cross my arms. “You almost took off without me.”
God, how I hate it when he does this. We get into an argument and start screaming at each other, then five minutes later, he’s forgotten all about it. He’s all lovey-dovey. What do you do when someone forgets to stay mad? How do you fight with that? You don’t. You just shut up because it’ll make you crazy.
“You were gonna take off without me, dumbass.” I guess knowing what you need to do is different from actually doing it.
“You’re crazy. Go screw yourself.”
That makes me feel better. We’re both angry now, the way it should be. There’s another silence for about a minute, then John turns to me.
“Hi, honey,” he says.
I sigh. “Hi, John.”
It was my granddaughter who first noticed the changes in John’s behavior. During a Christmas celebration at our house about four years back, she found John downstairs in our
rumpus room, where we keep all the memorabilia of our vacations, including a mounted map of the United States where John has marked the routes in color-coded tape. According to Lydia, he was walking around, bewildered, looking at everything and muttering to himself, “It’s going to be hard leaving all this.”
Lydia walked up to him and said, “Grandpa, are you all right?” She said that he looked at her as if he wasn’t sure who exactly she was. When she repeated the question, he just nodded.
Then she asked him, “Where are you going, Grandpa? You said you have to leave all this.”
He just said, “Nowhere. I’m not going anywhere.”
By the time Lydia got him upstairs, he seemed all right, more like himself, but she took me aside and told me what happened.
When I asked John about it later, he denied it. He was sure that he hadn’t even been downstairs, but I had seen him come up myself. Nothing happened for a couple of months after that, so I managed to push it out of my mind.
Then we went to Florida. We were headed to Kissimmee to visit friends who had a condo down there. All along the way, John had indigestion and light-headedness and shortness of breath. He kept saying he was all right, but I didn’t believe him. Midway into our second day of driving (we were trying to make it there in two days, always the big rush), he pulled over to the side of the freeway, panting. Then he opened the door and threw up.
“John, what’s wrong?” I was really scared by this time.
“I don’t know, I don’t know!” He was coughing and wheezing by then. “I can’t breathe, Ella!”
I thought he was having a heart attack, but he wasn’t holding his chest or his arm or anything like that.
John held his hands over his mouth, breath shallow, eyes welling, voice trembling. “I don’t know if I can drive, Ella. I feel so light-headed. I’m afraid.”
It was the only time I ever heard him say that to me.
Around then, another Leisure Seeker pulled up behind us. A man in his fifties came up to the window and asked if everything was okay. (Leisure Seeker owners stick together that way.)
“I think my husband’s having a heart attack,” was what I said.
The man looked at John and saw he was truly sick. “Can you drive your van?” he asked me.
“I haven’t driven a car in thirty years, much less this thing,” I said.
“Okay.” He ran to his RV, then ran back to ours. “I’ll drive you two to the next town, and my wife will follow us.”
We ended up in some podunk hospital in the Florida panhandle. (It’s worth saying here that if you can ever avoid being in a hospital in Florida, do so. Instead of “the Sunshine State,” the state motto should be “Land of Unnecessary Surgery.”) Some greasy quack admitted John, got him into a bed, examined him, and proclaimed him a candidate for open-heart surgery within ten minutes.
“Bullshit,” said John, who was feeling better by then. “No way.”
After that, they put the pressure on me. “It’s for his own good. He could go at any time.” They basically scared the bejesus out of me. I told them I had to call my children. Cindy said the same thing as John. Kevin volunteered to come down the next day. I told the hospital that there wasn’t going to be any surgery, not for a while at least.
Kevin arrived the next day. By then, John felt fine. He was ready to resume our trip.
“I’m driving the van back to Detroit,” said Kevin, with as much conviction as I’d ever heard from him. “You two are flying home.”
We both pissed and moaned because neither of us liked flying, but eventually we relented. It was the first time that we felt a real shift in power, how our kids now felt like they were in charge of us instead of the other way around. It’s not a good feeling, let me tell you. Watching the Leisure Seeker pull up in our driveway three days later made me feel like a scolded child banished to home. Grounded.