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Fred and Anna

by Neil Crabtree

Fred dreamt happily until he felt a hand on his arm shake him once, then again more firmly.

“Mister, you need to wake up. We’re fixing to close the library.”

He opened his eyes and there was a large, dark-skinned lady in a gray dress leaning over him. She wore bright red lipstick and smelled of a familiar perfume.

He got up slowly and let her guide him out the door.

He’d slept for over an hour, but he could not remember what he’d been dreaming. Outside, Fred looked for his car, anxious to get home. Wait till he told Anna he fell asleep in the library, in front of everybody. She’d have a hoot over that one.

When he arrived, the dark house scared him. Something was wrong. Sunset had become evening, and he’d turned the headlights on to drive safely. Anna’s car was still in the driveway but there were no lights on inside. That was not like her. Suppose she’d fallen and hurt herself? An old commercial flashed through his mind, I’ve fallen and can’t get up.

The door was unlocked. He turned on the lights and began calling for her.

“Anna! Anna, I’m home.”

There was no response. He went room to room calling her name, looking for some clue of where she might be. The bedroom closet door was open, the bed unmade. Her clothes still hung on her side of the closet, organized according to her custom, blouses, slacks, dresses and sweaters. Her shoes were below, each pair in its own cubicle in the bin he’d assembled for her. And she always made the bed, always closed the door, always demanded he do the same. Had someone awakened her from a nap, then somehow prevented her from returning? A chill went through him.

There were thieves who preyed on the elderly. Every night on the news, someone was attacked, someone’s home invaded. In the bathroom, her toiletries were undisturbed in the cabinet. Her toothbrush hung dry in the stand. He glanced in the mirror, surprised at the wrinkles and worry, the old man’s mask he was forced to wear. He agreed with his image that this was serious. In the hallway the silence seemed to confirm his worst fears.

Dear God, he whispered. Let her be all right.

He grabbed a golf club from the closet and, brandishing this weapon, made his way through the house toward the garage. No sign of her in the guest room or half-bath. The dining room looked the same as when he’d left, a large hardwood table and chairs, the accumulated mail piled on a place mat.

He found he was looking for blood spots, listening for cries or heavy breathing. His own heart seemed very loud. In the kitchen, the bread loaf was unsealed, and plastic bags of lunch meats and cheeses had been left out of the refrigerator. The handle of a knife protruded from an open jar of Hellmann’s mayonnaise. Anna would never leave her kitchen like this.

Something had happened, he was sure. He called her name again as he went into the Florida room. There was no sign of her. Fred opened the back door and turned on the light, but the empty brown lawn offered no information. This door also had been unlocked. He tried to remember locking it since he put out the trash in the afternoon, but he may not have. Lord, lord, maybe the thief came in through the doors he left unlocked. His heart froze. That was why there were no signs of break-in.

He sat heavily in a chair before the dark television. What should he do? Call the police? Jack. His son Jack lived close by. Jack always knew what to do.

Fred dialed the number written on a list taped to the phone stand. Amy, his daughter-in-law, answered. He did not want to frighten her, but she knew from his voice there was a problem.

“Hang on, Pop,” she said. “He’s out in the yard. Just stay right there while I get him.”

“Thank you, Amy.” He heard the phone receiver set on to a hard surface, heard her telling his grandson to go get Daddy quick. The white noise in the background quieted as a television was turned off. “It’s Fred,” he heard her say, before Jack came on the line.

“Hey, Pop. What’s up?” His son’s voice, concerned and comforting.

“Jack. Something’s wrong. I came home and your mother’s not here. I’m worried.”

“Not there?”

“I went to the library. When I got home the house was dark. Your mother’s not here. I’m afraid something’s happened.”

“Are you all right?”

“I’m fine, Jack. Fine. Do you think I should call the police?”

His son’s voice dropped in volume. “Mom died three months ago, Pop. You know she did. “

“She died?”

“Listen, sit right there. I’m on the way over. Everything’s okay. You just got a little confused.”

“I... was asleep at the library. I came right home.”

“It’s okay. Give me ten minutes. Don’t go anywhere. Everything’s all right. You just wait for me.”

“I’ll be here.”

Anna was dead. Of course Anna was dead. He sank deeper into the chair. A slide show restored the memory, the hospital room, the suspended IV bag, long plastic tubes in her arms and her nostrils, the monitors with screens of bold numbers and electronic graphs. The buzzing, the realization that she was not breathing, not pumping blood, not emitting brainwaves. Death came as a mechanical failure, some problem with the machines, a burned-out tube, a blown fuse. People crying, offering condolences, holding his hand, mumbling prayers.

He’d been so tired he wanted to lie down on the bed with her, go where she had gone, away from such distress. The long slow death vigil had worn him down until staying behind seemed the poorer alternative.

The awful funeral in the rain, the rectangular pit with her casket on a scaffold, the black umbrellas and the small tent, veils and dark suits, the minister calling her Anne over and over, when her name was Anna, everyone knew that. Three months ago. How could he forget? Ashes to ashes.

He wanted to be cremated, that was what he took from the experience. Burn his body down to dust and cinders, toss the box into the dumpster out back. Get on with things.

Now he had blown it. His memory lapse and the scare he gave his son would initiate concerned conversations about his health and well-being. Jack and Amy were talking about it now, he was sure. What are we going to do about Pop? To keep him safe, his family and doctors, even the courts themselves, would sentence him to a life of medications and assisted living. One mistake, that was all it took. Lose one memory, start the avalanche. Call it Alzheimer’s; never shake that label, not a forgetful old man. It was better to forget the future.

Fred got up and headed to the garage. Ten years ago he had bought a Smith & Wesson .38 Special and a box of bullets. He never told Anna, never told his son or anyone else. Somehow he knew one day he would need to defend his home, his freedom, his very life.

He remembered the brown leather pouch with the good brass zipper, the heft of it, the smell of gunmetal and oil, the size of a bullet and its cold hard shiny feel. There was no loss of memory about this, or about its hiding place behind the circular saw in the utility closet.

Objects stayed with you better than people, he guessed, one of nature’s many tricks. Get old and lose your wife of fifty years but remember clearly every tool in the double-layer Craftsman box unopened for months. Life’s a joke sometimes.

* * *

His son came through the front door calling Pop, the name he’d used for his father since childhood. Fred called him to the kitchen, where he stood at the table pouring hot water from a kettle into cups with tea bags for each of them, not spilling a drop.

Fred smiled, amazed by his son’s robust manhood, the muscular bulk of a once skinny child, the thick dark beard on the smooth cheeks he’d tickled with his own whiskers years ago. Jack had his mother’s blue eyes and, like her, was embarrassed when questioning Fred’s actions. Whether the shyness was inherited or Fred had done something to intimidate them both was unclear. Neither ever answered him, when he’d asked directly.

“You okay, Pop?”

“Yes, I’m okay. I’m sorry I scared you.”

Fred felt his son examining him, looking for signs of deterioration. There was no point in denying his action. He’d combed his hair, brushed his teeth, made sure his shirt was tucked in. Making herbal tea was certainly a sensible thing; the smell of spice rose with the steam. He had switched over from instant coffee after talking to his doctor.

“Have you taken your meds today?” Jack asked.

“I took my blood pressure pills, if that’s what you mean.”

“I thought there was another prescription you took.”

“Something to help me remember my wife is dead?” Fred was deliberately blunt. He looked to see how much his son wanted to question his ability.

Jack shifted, made uneasy by his father’s question.

“Nah. Some nerve pill or something.”

“Sit down, Jack. Drink your tea.”

His son pulled out a chair and sat at the kitchen table. Fred sat down opposite him. It seemed odd to be in a room together without a television on, or a ball game on the radio. The hum of the refrigerator, the ticking clock on the wall, these were not enough to drown out the silence underneath.

Jack spun his tea cup around from hand to hand, thinking over what he wanted to say. “Amy’s worried about you.”

“She’s a sweetheart. Please thank her for me.”

“She says maybe you should come live with us.”

Fred sat back and looked at his son, seeing the effort it took the young man to lock eyes with his father, and say something his heart was not really into. Jack had moved out the day of his eighteenth birthday, and other than an occasional night on the sofa, had kept his own home separate from his parents’ all these years.

“I’m all right, son. Really I am. My mind played a trick on me, that’s all.”

“Pop, you forgot Mom died.”

The genuine concern in his son’s face kept Fred from snapping back what had popped into his head. Instead, he thought it over, re-worded it.

“Well, Jack. If I ever forget she lived, I’ll go right to the nursing home peacefully.”

“Nobody’s talking about a nursing home. You can live with us, be around your grandkids. That’s all.”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“At least let’s get rid of Mom’s stuff.” Jack held his father’s eyes.

“Soon,” was all Fred could get out, before looking away.

The central air conditioning compressor was just outside the kitchen window, and the noise as it kicked in made them both sit up.

“That old unit keeps getting louder,” Fred said.

“There’s a sale on air conditioners at Home Depot. You could use one of those Energy Misers.” Jack relaxed at the change in topic, chugged hot tea like it was beer, grimaced as it burned his mouth.

Fred grinned. He appreciated his son, the way the big, soft-spoken young man shifted gears, drove them safely out of the mire.

“That’s a damn good idea.”

“I’ll take you over there tomorrow, if you want.”

“Bring Amy and the kids. I’ll buy her some plants for her garden.”

The men smiled at one another, relieved to have found man-talk together, machines and how-to and home appliances so much more comfortable than nursing homes and forgotten mothers. They went on talking for a while in this vein, whether to replace the air handler as well as the compressor, how many BTU’s for the square footage of the house, rewiring the circuit box. Jack knew a surprising amount about air conditioning.

His son asked again, got reassurance. His father was okay. Jack dreaded the other conversation even more than he did, Fred saw.

He’d gotten off light. If Amy had come, they’d still be talking or he’d be on his way to the emergency room. Anna had never had the nerve to talk to him the way his daughter-in-law did. That drew the two women together, made them a formidable team. Amy would be especially upset by what Fred had done. Not the forgetting; she knew grief could cause denial. But not telling her, telling Jack instead. Fred needed to make amends tomorrow, first thing.

When Jack left, Fred went into his bedroom and took off his shoes. He was sleepy, but before getting undressed for bed he made a point of finding a pencil and a Post-It. Leaning over the night table, he wrote: GUN BEHIND SAW IN GARAGE

He folded the paper and put it in his wallet with his money and other reminders, little notes to himself, then set the wallet and his watch in the nightstand drawer. He picked up the little gold picture frame with the photograph of his wife. This was the way he remembered her, a lovely lady just twenty-one years old, standing posed in a new red velvet dress before an enormous Christmas tree. When he closed his eyes, he still saw her, a shining star, there to guide his heart.

Copyright © 2007 by Neil Crabtree

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