There's a Time for Us to Wander
William Todd Rose
The old man is ninety-eight years old and lying in bed at the Meadowside Nursing Home. His thin hair is silver-gray and tussled from the pillows propping up his head and shoulders. An oxygen concentrator sits on the floor like a faithful mutt tethered to its master by a leash of clear tubing and it hums gently as air bubbles through water in its plastic humidifier. The cannulas loop behind his earlobes, but the twin spouts that are supposed to deliver a steady flow of air into either nostril are askew and blow against the stubble covering his cheek and chin. According to the calendar tacked to the corkboard in the room, it’s Tuesday and someone should have been by the day before to shave him; but this obviously didn’t happen. Perhaps later in the afternoon, after a lunch of buttered bread with turkey and gravy….
He shifts slightly and the sheet and loose-weave blanket covering him somehow make him look smaller, as if he’s shriveled away beneath them. They are as nondescript as the beige walls and as boring as the drivel playing on the television mounted near the ceiling. The set looks down upon the room like a mumbling sentinel whose dialogue is lost beneath the sounds of the home: visitors speak so loudly it’s impossible to tell whether the voices come from the room next door or the far end of the hall; nursing shoes squeak against the polished floors and an ancient voice releases a wordless cry, as if testing the corridors of infinity to see if there is any sort of reply from the other side.
The window in the old man’s room looks out upon a courtyard formed in the center of the U-shaped, brick building. Benches cluster among the grass and flower beds, but he will never be able to sit upon them and feel the warmth of the sun on skin that seems as thin and wrinkled as tissue paper. We know that he never recovered from his fractured hip and that his legs are securely enveloped within what looks like giant blood pressure cuffs. They fill with air, deflate, and fill again, keeping the circulation moving like cops directing traffic at a sluggish intersection. The view, like the television, is lost on him, however. Without his glasses, the majority of his world consists of multicolored blobs that shift and bleed into one another until faces pull themselves into existence from the Technicolor sea. These faces lean in close with voices raised to ensure he can hear what is being said. It’s nurses mostly, with the doctor only breezing through later in the evenings. Visitors, when they come, usually arrive in the mid afternoon and are gone by dinner. None of them, however, can see us. They skirt around our presence as if they sense on some level that they aren’t alone with the old man; but we are invisible to them, formless and primordial.
Moving backward through time, we see a white, two-story house nestled in a hollow where two mountains converge. A long porch spans the length of the house, its concrete steps bordered on either side by flowering bushes that have grown so unruly their trunks are tied to the banisters with lengths of rope. We move up the steps and pass a swing that’s suspended by rusty chains from eye hooks in the ceiling. The paint here is faded, peeling in places, and the floorboards slightly bowed. Feeling neither heat nor cold, we glance at the large print thermometer angled toward the kitchen window as a mere curiosity. Sixty-eight degrees with the afternoon sun dappling through a canopy of leaves as lush and green as any rain forest; water gurgles through the creek dividing yard from forest as squirrels chitter and birds tweet. It’s peaceful here, serene in a way that those who are born and die in a city will never know. But this is no pleasure trip, no vacation through space and time… we have work to do.
We drift toward a storm door whose black handle was broken long ago. The jagged piece of metal below the lever poses no danger, however, as we pass through this outer door as easily as the wooden one on the other side. Within the house now, in a room with a daybed and a chimney whose hearth has been filled with a gas stove. Pictures hang on the paneled walls, their glass frames smudged with dust, and from another room we hear a television. The volume is turned up so loudly that the tinny speakers rattle with the chatter of an announcer as a pinch hitter connects bat and ball with a sharp crack. We move toward this sound, floating through the front room and into a kitchen whose faded curtains have hung before the windows so long that their pattern has transferred, ghost-like, onto the panes. Another doorway connects to the room where the old man sits in a recliner.
He is heavier here, his gut overlapping the belt that keeps his baggy work pants from slipping down his stubby legs when he stands. His hair isn’t as thin as when we first saw him, but he’s still old enough to require the assistance of two canes. For the time being, however, he is content to lean back in the chair and fish Circus Peanuts from a bag hidden within the pouch on its side.
To the casual observer, it would appear as if he is watching the game with intense interest. We, however, are never casual. We notice how his line of sight is slightly lower than the bottom of the screen, how his eyes shimmer behind the spectacles perched on the bridge of his nose, and the way the remote trembles in his hand. The old man isn’t watching the television, but rather what’s beneath it. On the shelf directly below are three photo frames. The centerpiece of this trio is a portrait of a lady with curly white hair and glasses so large that their lenses touch the wrinkles on her cheekbones. Her mouth is drawn into a serious expression, deepening the lines which crease the corners of her thin lips, but there’s kindness in her eyes. And it is those eyes that the old man gazes into while a stadium brimming with fans cheers.
We sip the emotion in the room and sample the flavor, breaking down the gestalt into identifiable profiles. The sadness in his heart is palpable, like salty vinegar left to age, uncorked, in a musty closet. The memory of funeral flowers taste like bitter leaves and traces of loneliness lend an undertone that is unmistakable once identified: a dash of sawdust swirling lazily in the air while a project that will never be finished gathers dust.
This is not the Time we were looking for.
Further back into the past now and the exterior paint of the house brightens until it is as stark white as a field of snow. The windows are clear and new, without curtains, and all the little nicks and scars are missing from their sills. The bushes on either side of the concrete stairs are gone as well. There’s no swing on the porch, no thermometer nailed to the supports, and the rooms within are empty, waiting to be filled with a newlywed’s dreams.
A man and woman stand in the yard, looking at this piece of land in rural West Virginia with eyes that drink in every detail. They aren’t familiar with this property, are yet to learn its quirks and secrets, but the woman’s eyes sparkle in the Autumn sunlight as a slight breeze rustles her curly, dark hair.
“I love it… I want this one, Roy. I really want this one.”
The man glances at his bride as he squeezes her hand. “Then this is the one you’re gonna get.”
Here, the emotion tastes as sweet as honeysuckle at the height of the season. It blossoms like the most rare and delicate nectar, sometimes so heady that Time itself swoons… but mostly it melts and diffuses so slowly the flavor could last a lifetime without ever growing stale.
This is our starting point. The living room with the blaring baseball game, our end. We set to work, touching the timeline of the old man’s life like a stone skipping across a lake. Yet the sparkling waters are never quite as vast as they seem and our work is completed all too soon.
Now we return to room 7B in the Meadowside Nursing Home. In our absence other visitors have arrived and they form a loose horseshoe of bodies around the bed, parting only to make room for the nurse. She bends down so that her crisp, white collar tickles his chin.
“Roy… you’ve got company. Todd’s here to see you, Roy. You remember Todd, don’t you?” The nurse’s voice sounds as if she trying to communicate with a deaf child, each word enunciated with slow patience. The old man, however, doesn’t so much as look in her direction, for he has noticed us standing by his side, so vibrant and clear against the blurred cataracts of color.
For a moment, we see through the old man’s eyes. Due to his beliefs and upbringing, we appear as a radiant figure bathed in a light so soft and ethereal that it seems to disperse from somewhere within our body. We’re draped in a white robe whose folds cloak the secret of our sex and golden hair cascades to the back of our graceful neck. Our skin is smooth, untouched by age or scars, and in the darkness of our pupils, nebula float amidst a vast field of stars. As we watch ourselves from a mortal perspective, wings unfurl from our back and the feathers rustle slightly as the corners of our mouth turn up into a smile.
“You come t’ take me Home?” With his dentures soaking in a tray on the bedside table, his voice is thick and sounds as if he’s speaking through a mouthful of chewed food.
“We can’t do that, Grandpa.” The one called Todd answers as he touches the old man’s hand. “They have to take care of you here.”
The old man raises his hand from the bed and makes a motion in Todd’s direction that looks as if he’s shooing a fly. Dismissing his grandson, he looks directly at us and repeats the question again: “You come t’ take me Home?”
When we speak, our words are reserved solely for him. A chorus of voices fill his head, each speaking in unison, each recognizable as someone from his past. People he’d loved and lost, friends and family whose funerals he’d attended while his own life stretched on. “We are not the one of which you speak, Roy.”
“You ain’t th’ angel of death, then?”
His guests look at each other with silent frowns while nervous laughter bubbles from the nurse.
“Now, Roy… you know that’s not the angel of death. It’s Todd, Roy. Todd.”
She is of no concern to us.
“What you call the angel of death is known to us as Coda. But your time to accept his embrace has not yet come.”
The old man’s brow furrows as confusion clouds his eyes. He looks at us for a moment in silence, blinking while his other visitors raise their voices even louder, as if they believe he simply can’t hear them.
“Then who are you?” he finally asks.
“I’m Todd, Grandpa. Todd.”
“You may call us Bliss, old friend. We are comfort.”
We slip from words into pictures, showing him that which we wish to convey. Here is a man who loved the outdoors, who walked more miles through the forests and hills in his lifetime than some people ever dream, now confined to a bed. Deprived of the trees and babbling creeks teeming with rainbow trout, unable to catch even a fleeting glimpse of the thickets and undergrowth he still wanders in his dreams. Here is a proud husband and father, a retired pipe cutter, waiting in shame for someone to come along and clean the mess which fills the room with a stink that causes him to wrinkle his nose. He was a provider, a person who tried to live with dignity and honor, now being taken care of in much the same way as an infant. What we showed him was not our invention, but merely a reflection of what we saw within his own mind.
“We can make the wait better.” We say, dropping back into words. “We can ease your time until Coda comes calling. The gift is yours, if you accept it.”
The old man closes his eyes and his bottom lip quivers so slightly it goes unnoticed. But with a nod of his head, he signals his wishes. We lean forward and our lips touch his forehead, transferring the gift from our essence into his.
The room with the television and oxygen concentrator fades.
He is walking down a hillside with a .22 slung over his shoulder. His back is straight, his legs are strong, and he swings a red squirrel by the tail as a clubfooted beagle bounds along beside him. From his vantage point on the hill, he can see the grandchildren playing in the yard and their squeals of laughter startle a flock of birds into flight. A woman with curly hair just beginning to show the first streaks of gray hangs laundry on the line and his son swings on the porch with a sweating can of cola in his hand.
“Reckon we’ll be eating squirrel gravy tonight.” He calls out as the beagle yips in agreement.
From the forest, he hears a voice that sounds as if it’s coming from the end of an infinitely long tunnel: “Now, Roy, you know it’s meat loaf night. Every Tuesday is meat loaf night. You know it’s Tuesday, don’t you, Roy?”
He peers into the shadows of the forest, searching for whomever had spoken. But there is only a rabbit, twitching its whiskers as it warily eyes the dog from afar.
“You should make some biscuits too, Mommy. You know how them kids love your biscuits.”
He continues walking down the hill, the voice from the forest growing fainter with each step as it explains in a low, rational tone: “Dementia in a patient his age isn’t uncommon. I’m really surprised we haven’t seen signs of it before now. The poor thing. It breaks my heart …”
And then the voice disappears entirely as his wife smiles.